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A review: Iron & Wine @ Trustees Theater
With his long, bushy beard, kind eyes and black prairie-pastor suit, Beam cuts a messianistic figure. Photo: Geoff L. Johnson

The touring version of Iron & Wine is a three-ring circus, an 11-piece band with drums, percussion, a synthesizer, two backup singers and a muscular three-man horn section.

The ringmaster is Sam Beam, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who's walked a labyrinth of changes since his earliest days as a proud purveyor of simple, breathy indie folk.

There was no way those who decry Beam's decision to "flesh out" the Iron & Wine sound - the passionate fans who've followed him for a decade - could have come away from Saturday's show at the Trustees Theater with anything less than awe.

Beam was in total and absolute command of the assembled musicians. Every note, every chord, every phrase was in service of his songs. Never once did the big band feel like overkill.

Many of the earlier Iron & Wine numbers, from "The Sea and the Rhythm" to "Sodom, South Georgia" and "Free Until They Cut Me Down," had been re-arranged to best utilize the massive unit.

And guess what? Everything worked.

Beam himself is a natural focal point. With his long, bushy beard, kind eyes and black prairie-pastor suit, he cuts a messianic figure, and his lyrics are rife with vague Biblical references smoothie-blended with impressionist poetry and the occasional street crudity.

His high tenor voice often veered into a blissful falsetto, and when the two singing sopranos at Stage Right joined him for a few bars of three-part harmony, it was a mix made in pop-music heaven.

The opening song was "Me and Lazarus," one of the standout tracks on the latest Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean. Throughout the concert Bean returned to the new batch of tunes again and again. Although the album is barely three months old, some of them were also re-arranged. "Walking Far From Home" began with Beam, a capella, before each of the band members kicked in, in turn, culminating in a rousing tent preacher singalong.

Beam, who's not exactly a Chatty Kathy, nevertheless talked to the audience every once in a while. He reflected on his time at Florida State University, where he studied film. He told the audience he'd very nearly enrolled at SCAD, but "it wasn't far enough away from home" (he's a South Carolina native).

His advice for art school students: "Stick to your guns. Learn to teach. Learn to flip burgers." And never, ever forget to work on your art - or music - in every spare moment.

His art school tenure, he said, constituted "some of the best years of my life."

And the hits just kept on coming: "Big Burned Hand," "Summer in Savannah," "Tree By the River," "House By the Sea," "Rabbit Will Run," "Cinder and Smoke."

And how's this for a long sprint off a short emo-folk pier: One song turned into a piledriving mambo, with the three horn players blasting a smoking dance riff over and over until even the ushers couldn't help but sway.

The opening set from a four-piece band called the Low Anthem illustrated just how powerful an artist Sam Beam has become. The Rhode Island outfit's music consisted of dreary and repetitive sad bastard songs, played on an assortment of cool instruments du jour, including musical saw and a bowed banjo.

In any other setting, the Low Anthem might have been enjoyable in a depressing, indie-folk way. But once Beam and company took over, their irrelevance was quick and final.