Three-quarters of the way through his sold-out show Wednesday night at First Avenue, Iron & Wine proprietor Sam Beam offered a reminder of what was wrong with his performance the last time he packed the club in 2011. The South Carolina-reared, Texas-based indie bard followed up a stirring, four-song solo/acoustic montage by doing a 180-degree musical turn and overextending his 12-piece backing band through “Caught in the Briars” and “Sundown (Back in the Briars),” two tracks tied at the hip off his new album “Ghost on Ghost.” Like too much of his 2011 set, the song veered into Spinal Tap’s “Jazz Odyssey” territory, with noodly horn and string parts that went on and on.
Thankfully, though, that was it. Once a solitary folkie with a hushed sound, Beam now tours with a small army of musicians, and on Wednesday he proved how well he has mastered his new role as a big-band leader.
Early in the nearly two-hour set, Beam’s bulky entourage showed off its smooth-grooving R&B prowess in “Kingdom of the Animals” before turning into something close to a symphony in “Tree by the River.” The three-member string section especially added a magical touch, most prominently in the Postal Service cover “Such Great Heights” and in some of Beam’s rawer old songs, such as the elegantly reinvented “16, Maybe Less” (from the 2005 EP with Calexico).
While the 2011 gig could have used more of the acoustic musing that first made Beam an indie star, on Wednesday it felt a bit like a wasted opportunity for him to play solo as often as he did. The one-song, one-man encore featuring New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” certainly would’ve been a great place to cue the strings. The band’s absence did make Beam more personable with the crowd in the middle of the set, though, when he took requests and joked around with fans.
“I guess none of you cared about the Eagles?” he inquired, referring to the band across the street at Target Center (which, along with Jonny Lang at the State Theatre, made traffic and parking quite a challenge on Wednesday). After he struggled to remember the lyrics to “Upward Over the Mountain” – a fan request -- Beam joked, “I was thinking, ‘What if Don Henley did that across the street tonight, too?” Someone in the crowd later shouted out a “Free Bird”-style request for “Hotel California,” prompting a broad smile from under the singer’s thick beard.
Henley hasn’t shown as much musical growth in four decades as Beam showed between his 2011 and 2013 First Ave gigs. Iron & Wine could undoubtedly pack a theater the next time it comes to town, and when it does, it will be ready with the ornate sound to match the setting.
Here’s Wednesday’s set list:
The Desert Babbler / Carousel / Kingdom of the Animals / Tree by the River / Grass Widows / Belated Promise Ring / Baby Center Stage / Monkeys Uptown (this one and next one just with strings for accompaniment) / Such Great Heights / Boy With a Coin (start of four-song solo/acoustic set) / Upward Over the Mountain / Resurrection Fern / Waves of Galveston (new song) / Caught in the Briars & Sundown (Back in theBriars) / Jezebel / Grace For Saints and Ramblers / Low Light Buddy of Mine / Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me ENCORE: Love Vigilantes (solo)