I’ve gotten a lot from the recent records by both artists, so was really excited to see them play live together, especially after hearing their new collaborative album Years to Burn, which came out in the spring, and rating it pretty highly.
The set began with Follow the Water, which may be my favourite track from the album. The band immediately swung into gear, and if Joey Burns hit a bad note on lead guitar and Sam Beam’s vocal was a little quiet as the sound guys worked out the level, it was no big.
Next was He Lays in the Reins, with Burns taking lead vocal. I guess this was so Beam could cover the harmony, which lies above the range of the melody. It kind of makes you wish that they’d recorded the song as a duet originally, but In the Reins was much more an Iron and Wine EP with Calexico backing him than a 50/50 collaboration.
Next was Father Mountain, on which the Beam/Burns harmonies again sounded great, and Glimpse, a Calexico song.
The centrepiece of Years to Burn is The Bitter Suite, which is made up of two slow songs bookending a jam featuring some great Miles Davis-style trumpet from Jacob Valenzuela. Other than the trumpet not sounding as echoey and cool as it does on the recording, the band handled the demanding 9-minute piece well. Valenzuela’s lead vocal on Pajaro was mournful and moving, and John Convertino powered through band through Evil Eye, the instrumental section, from behind his drum kit. Tennessee Train, the slow, mournful Sam Beam song that ends the suite, is spine-tingling on record, but live demonstrated what would be my one gripe about the show.
Beam has a particular type of voice: soft, sad and consistent in timbre across his range. He began as an Elliott Smith-style whisperer and evolved into a real singer from there. But he’s not a singer who can adapt the timbre of his voice and sing louder and more open throatedly without his tone becoming hard and brittle. At times on Saturday I felt he over-decorated the melodies of certain songs and sang more strident, arena-sized melodies that didn’t quite suit his voice or the moment. On a song other than Tennessee Train, it might not have mattered, but it did slightly mar one of his best songs.
Next was a really good cover of Lucinda Williams’s I Lost It, and Midnight Sun, which I liked more than its studio recording, but it was maybe a weaker moment in the set in terms of the writing.
Sixteen, Maybe Less was an odd one. Beam botched the lyrics one line in and laughed it off while carrying on the song rather than starting again. The band slid in after the first verse and I soon forgot about Beam’s early flub, but he also forgot lyrics in the second set of verses and instead began talk-singing the verse. Now, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t still a little misty at the end of the song, but as with Tennessee Train, some of Beam’s performance choices took me out of a song I’d expected simply to get lost in.
No problems arose from Flores y Tamales, though. The Spanish-language, cumbia-inflected song from Calexico’s 2018 album The Thread that Keeps Us, sung by Valenzuela, was a real set highlight, as was the short sequence of songs that Beam and Burns sung as a duo.
They began with the old Iron and Wine favourite Naked As We Came, a vehicle for Beam’s deft fingerpicking and the harmonies the pair have perfected (see video above for a radio session). They followed that up with a pair of covers: Chris Gaffney’s Frank’s Tavern, which Calexico have been playing for years and which fits them like a glove (they brought Valenzuela back to the stage to join in on trumpet, and it was great), and the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream, for which they brought back opener Lisa O’Neill. Personally, I didn’t feel that O’Neill’s rough, gnarled voice was a brilliant fit for such a gentle song and would rather have heard Beam sing lead. It was a nice inclusive gesture though.
The band came back on and went into the bluesy Red Dust from In the Reins, on which bass player Sebastian Steinberg played a long double bass solo. Steinberg is an excellent player, but it went on a few minutes too long for my liking, given that it was basically unaccompanied and with no harmonic context. Next was a nice cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses and Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin, on which the band nodded at the arrangement of the recording while taking it somewhere different and cool. Definitely a set highlight.
The final three songs of the set were an absolutely lovely version of Years to Burn, which had all the weary delicacy of the studio recording, a fun version of History of Lovers (never liked the nursery rhyme-ness of this song all that much, but enjoyed it on the night) and What Heaven’s Left, the opening track of Years to Burn, which worked well as a set closer – nicely celebratory, with a cool outro jam featuring lots of John Convertino’s drum fills and Valenzuela’s trumpet. The encore, short and sweet, was In Your Own Time, which they stripped back compared to the album recording, losing some of the barroom swagger. Still, it was a good song to end on, and the natural, inevitable closer since it hadn’t appeared in the main set.
I’ve seen Calexico a few times now, and they’re never less than impressive. Their collective musicianship is just so good. Convertino is a joy, and Burns has developed into a really effective singer and focal point for the band. Beam was a little more hit and miss. Possibly it was an end-of-tour thing, but I think I’d have enjoyed a couple of the songs more if he’d played them a little straighter, singing the melodies as written and keeping his voice in the dynamic range where it sounds best. Nevertheless, having not seen an iron and Wine gig yet, I’d not hesitate to go next time he’s over here with his band.
A final word about Rob Burger – I’ve not really mentioned his contributions on keyboards and steel guitar, but he was absolutely crucial to the success of the gig. The guy is completely gifted and brilliant.