Iron & Wine team with Calexico, sell out 9:30 Club

When we last left Iron & Wine, it had just finished a sparse acoustic set in Dublin, Ireland ("Iron & Wine subdue Dublin," Nov. 8, 2004). In the year since then, Iron & Wine - brainchild of native Floridian Sam Beam - covered that ubiquitous Postal Service song "Such Great Heights," which was subsequently used in the "Garden State" soundtrack and an M&Ms commercial, and teamed up with eclectic Arizona collective Calexico - say that 10 times fast - for "In the Reigns," a five-song EP.

With Calexico and flamenco guitarist Salvador Duran - who also contributes to the EP - in tow, Iron & Wine did the seemingly impossible on Wednesday night: it sold out a mid-week show with late doors (10 p.m.) at the 9:30 Club. How did Beam and Co. go from selling out hole-in-the-wall Club Iota in Arlington, Va., in summer 2004 to accomplishing such a feat last week?

Well, people buy into shtick. Beam's stage name, Lengthy Beard, plus his rise from an obscure demo delivered to the Sub Pop label and this latest venture with Calexico, provoke intrigue. Iron & Wine is a throwback to a kinder, gentler era of singer-songwriters. Instead of stringing together random imagery, Beam tells a forthright story and makes his lyrics intelligible. His tender whisper-alongs are vicarious nostalgia for the listener.

Calexico's addition to the mix was a wise one. Where Iron & Wine puts so much stock in its words, Calexico focuses on the melodies. Each band played separate sets Wednesday night, allowed Duran to wow the crowd - most of whom had probably never seen a real flamenco guitarist - and then played a final series of songs together.

At one point on Wednesday night there were 11 musicians on stage - a far cry from the three performers in Dublin and Arlington. Beam makes it a family act by including his sister Sarah, a fiddle player with an angelic delivery. Covers of Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" made full use of the xylophone, steel pedals and various horns begging to be incorporated. If it had been summer, and the bands had a little more exposure, one could have expected to see this show at Virginia outdoor amphitheater Wolf Trap.

The performance was taped for an NPR program called "All Songs Considered," a bold move considering it was the first night of the tour. Upon further listening, one notices a few miscues. Otherwise, this music - or, the idea behind the music - is virtually flawless. Even the snobs at popular music gossip Web site Buddyhead, who generally frown upon this type of music, have given their seal of approval, for what it's worth.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who did not at least respect this collaboration and Iron & Wine's previous work. Its fans include "hipsters" and "punks" who would otherwise pretentiously brush it off in favor of their genre, as well as parents who appreciate a finely constructed tune and put aside their disdain for "today's music." It's been a long time since such major crossover appeal existed. Here's hoping it continues.

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