Balanced Beam

Iron and Wine proves that you don't have to be a hick to play the banjo

Samuel Beam writes and records his songs at home, in an apartment he shares with his wife and newborn daughter in Miami Beach. The subject matter of most of these songs -- searching creek beds for snakes to kill, clearing thorn bushes, selling a car to buy shoes for his mom -- one would assume, might lie outside Beam's own experience. In fact, some writers have pointed out that the man who teaches film at the International Fine Arts College and records his music onto a laptop smacks of inauthenticity. An urbanized intellectual singing tales of rural poverty? Get real.

Despite the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s Americana soundtrack, singer/songwriter Gillian Welch faces similar prejudices. A spoiled Hollywood brat who practically grew up on the set of The Carol Burnett Show should not, cried critics, wear dime-store dresses and sing about the mules plowing her 20 Alabama acres. Let it stand duly noted that the blue-jeaned Beam -- who releases his material under the rubric Iron and Wine -- sports no spear of straw between his teeth.

"Aw, so what?" he laughs amiably during a break from a solo acoustic performance at One Ninety restaurant in Little Haiti on Thursday, October 3. "That's stupid. It's only music!" Beam smiles a chipmunk smile as smoke coils from his hand-rolled cigarette. He knows he's going to have to get used to the reviews, because his first and only album, the stark, slightly haunted The Creek Drank the Cradle, has been issued by Seattle indie powerhouse Sub Pop, which means every music journalist in the country has now received it. They may not know what to make of it at first: Beam's old-timey barn-owl tunes have no kin in South Florida. "No, there really isn't anyone else doing this," he agrees, "which is really kind of good, I think." Isolated by nature, Beam's music is far removed from rock and owes almost nothing to Sub Pop's ethos. Tonight, however, Beam does allow himself one ironic punk indulgence when he ends one deftly fingerpicked song by turning his acoustic guitar to face his tiny amp. He milks about a millisecond of feedback from it, a devilish grin flashed to the clapping crowd.

Crowd may not be the right word. No more than 15 people have turned out to see this rare performance, and that includes three New Timeswriters, four One Ninety employees, and a handful of Beam's friends, students, and fellow professors. "Who's here from my class?" he asks. When a bandanna-wearing kid raises his hand, Beam shoots back a smile, adjusts his capo, and says, "OK, you get an A." Candlelight licks the crimson walls. Everyone is so entranced that the busboy doesn't even notice a small cockroach hiding behind the ashtray near his elbow. "I don't play very often," Beam announces, but his guitar work is more than able to meet the task.

With carefully measured inhalations, Beam's ghostly falsetto launches into "Bird Stealing Bread," a dream of a song blessed with a terrible desolate beauty. It's the only track on The Creek Drank the Cradleto display hints of South Florida's geography, albeit in an old-postcard kind of way: "I've a picture of you on our favorite day by the seashore," he whispers. "There's a bird stealing bread that I brought out from under my nose." These cinematic details pervade his songs -- his only outlet, he says, since he hasn't actually made a film in some time.

These lonely acoustic shows will soon belong to memory, as Iron and Wine is now prepared to enter phase two. Isaac Brock, erstwhile Modest Mouse frontman, picked Beam to warm up for Ugly Casanova, Brock's new side project, on the road this summer. Reports Beam, "I said, 'Sure, I'll tour with you, but I need a band. Shit!'" So bare, drumless, and unadorned is The Creek Drank the Cradle that it's almost impossible to imagine how its lamp-lit ballads could be so transformed, especially given tonight's hushed recital and Beam's one amp/one mic/no pick routine. But somehow it works, says Beam. His Upstate New York-dwelling sister plus musicians from California and the Florida Panhandle have enlisted in the expanded Iron and Wine, sister Sarah singing backup and the rest adding banjo, bass, and percussion. The entourage is planning for New York City's CMJ showcase next month and Austin's South by Southwest next spring.

When Beam crosses the threshold of candles and descends the stage at last, he has performed nearly every song on the double-length demo that got him signed to the mighty Sub Pop, plus a new composition. Iron and Wine's Sub Pop affiliation gives Beam more than bragging rights. It gives the rest of us some consolation that someone's ears still function somewhere, that if songs as lovely as Beam's can cut through one coffee-stained conference room, maybe they can keep on cutting a new path through the chaff.

"I don't know about that," Beam laughs. "It's just music!"

 
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