Singer/songwriter Samuel Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, brought his tour to UCA’s Reynolds Performance Hall Sunday evening for his first ever show in the state — a performance that Arkansans were more than ready to experience, judging from the sold-out auditorium. Mr. Beam and Co. did not disappoint, either.
Marketa Irglova opened with songs from her new solo album, “Anar.” Despite her part in the musical indie film “Once,” for which she won an Academy Award, and her subsequent success with co-star Glen Hansard in their band The Swell Season, Irglova was delightfully humble and endearing. She took time in between songs to thank the audience, talk about the ideas behind her songs and introduce her band-members, Aida Shahghasemi and her husband/producer Tim Iseler. The threesome, with Irglova on the keyboard, Iseler on bass guitar and Shahghasemi on a hand drum, created a light, but full sound. Clean harmonies from Irglova and Shahghasemi (the ladies also doubled as backup singers for Iron & Wine) gave weight to honest, simple lyrics, as in the lullaby “Let Me Fall in Love.”
In what became a bit of a culture and music lesson, Irglova also explained Shahghasemi’s curious instrument, a Kurdish frame drum called a Daf. It was mesmerizing to watch her tap the taut surface with her fingers, pound with her palms, bounce the ring up and down, and shake it from side to side to rattle the metal rings inside the drum. She followed her powerful solo with an Iranian folk song sung in Farsi, “Dokhrar Goochani.” Gorgeous.
I expected the dreamy vibe from Irglova and her show to pave the mellow way for an acoustic-driven set from Iron & Wine. Even as Beam has shaken his “Such Great Heights” stereotype with experimental sounds and glorious songwriting, I still think of his music as, for lack of a better word, “chill.” I couldn’t have been more wrong — or blown away.
“If you have the urge to dance, I’m sorry, but you’re sitting down,” Beam joked about the theater seating. “Alright, see you on the other side,” he said before launching into a surprisingly badass rendition of “Rabbit Will Run,” from his 2011 album “Kiss Each Other Clean.” Never mind that Beam and his gang of musicians looked like professors gone rogue; these hippie academics knew how to rock and inserted lengthy, jazzy jam sessions liberally into familiar hits, like in “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog).”
Other tunes sounded more playful live, such as “Love Song of the Buzzard,” which began with a New Orleans’ worthy clarinet solo. Beam even made small talk about the Muppets and elicited some laughs from the enraptured, dead-quiet audience when he joked, “You need to shut the fuck up.”
Older songs like “Jesus the Mexican Boy,” “The Sea and the Rhythm,” and “Boy with a Coin,” were crowd-pleasers. And it was 2005’s “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” that finally got people jumping out of their seats, and 2004’s “Free Until They Cut Me Down” that kept them on their feet. During the latter, when the song hit a climactic note, the drummer was drumming so hard he looked like he might catapult out of his seat, while another percussionist pounded wildly on his bongo drums. The heat finally cools down to Beam nearly whispering “Papa don’t tell me what you would have done. She’s the one who begged me. Take me … take me home.”
I didn’t get a taste of the acoustic Iron & Wine I had expected until the audience demanded an encore. Beam returned to the stage alone to sing the “Trapeze Swinger.” It was proof that even at his most bare, Beam is a versatile, complex and riveting performer.