Iron & Wine, Calexico at 9:30 Club

Live Review >>

Iron & Wine photo
Iron & Wine – photo by Dennis Kleiman

In response to Iron & Wine’s set at the 9:30 Club Wednesday night, members of the packed audience did something inconceivable. It was hard to tell, sometimes only spotted by a chicken-like bob of the head. But the underlying truth was undeniable. They were moving.

“How can that be?!” you demand, scraping your memory for justification. All that comes to mind is the Iron & Wine song you heard in that movie/that M&Ms commercial/that other movie. To your recollection, bearded film-professor-turned-frontman Sam Beam’s tune was slow enough to rock you to sleep – not rock out.

Calexico Live photo

But those expecting lullabies at the late-night show on November 30 were rudely awakened when a Tucson duo called Calexico took the stage. A coupla cowboys with music to match, Joey Burns and John Covertino have been Beam’s pals since 2004 and his partners since they collaborated on 2005’s “In the Reins” EP. Critics heralded the addition of Calexico’s eclectic country backing to Iron & Wine’s wistful, weathered ballads.

The reaction was similar when the two bands shared the 9:30 stage, but seeing the live show required patience. A line that wrapped well around 8th Street wasn’t allowed to come in from the cold until 10:30 p.m., a half-hour after doors were supposed to open. Calexico kicked off 20 minutes later – and so did a hanging projection screen, which displayed scenes of various flora and fauna throughout the show. Horses were a particularly favorite image; by Calexico’s second song, the rollicking “Panic Open String,” the projected ponies were at full gallop.

The farm footage was initially distracting from the music, which seemed to be straightforward country-rock. But the screen and the style changed by song No. 3, a cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or.” Images of Technicolor flowers suddenly emerged along with the Latin influence that creeps over the Southwest border and into Calexico’s repertoire. Audiences loudly voiced approval during the seven-song set, especially on crowd favorite “The Crystal Frontier,” inspired by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.

Though they live there, Burns and Covertino may not have heard that the West was won; their tunes often play like conquistador anthems for young heroes riding to battle. Iron & Wine, on the other hand, sings like the trampled loser of such crusades, or perhaps just the dust that blew through them all. His set began as a solo, a lone Beam under the spotlight. Opener ‚ÄúHickory,‚Äù played before a backdrop now of drifting leaves, owned the pure, shuddering beauty encompassed in an even halfway decent Iron & Wine song. Beam stumbled lyrically on ‚ÄúSodom, South Georgia,‚Äù but was back on track with an even quieter version of ‚ÄúCinder and Smoke‚Äù than what’s offered on the stunning 2004 release, ‚ÄúOur Endless Numbered Days.‚Äù

Then Calexico joined him on stage, and the fun officially began. Cheers escalated at the first strums of the forceful “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)” – and so did Sam Beam. Pushed to rise above Calexico’s backing – which suddenly included two drummers – his usually hushed vocals swelled to what can only be described as such great heights.

Beam unplugged again for “Woman King” and a chill-inducing, 9-minute rendition of “The Trapeze Singer.” Both bands briefly relinquished the stage to special guest Salvador Duran, a flamenco guitarist who kept the horse theme going by literally clicking and clomping through three of his own songs and one of Iron & Wine’s. And then everyone was on stage, all facing each other, swaying in musical telepathy and Beam, well, beaming at the sound of his songs being played by this massively talented group.

By the time the show wrapped up in the wee hours of the morning, the faithful audience was weary. They’d been introduced to three unique artists in endless combinations, heard songs that ranged from murmurs to spits of rage and watched horses stampede across country plains. But overall, they’d been moved – and the volume raised by Iron & Wine and Calexico was nothing compared to the cheers.