For many musicians, the coveted set list is as crucial as a capo or guitar pick; as fundamental as a plumber’s snake or the phlebotomist’s vial. And how many artists, for better or worse, depend on their trusted side men to plump up their progressions, add a fill or contribute harmonies either to add colour or save their upper register for the finale? Yet on a grey post-polar vortex of a Saturday night, Sam Beam AKA Iron and Wine, a native South Carolinian and Texas transplant stood on the stage of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, with only a blonde acoustic as a loyal sidekick and played a nearly two-hour set. Solo.

The venue was absolutely packed for the first of two shows during the school’s annual benefit. Dressed in earth tones from his gravy-brown pullover to his comfy shoes, the bearded troubadour made many self-deprecating comments about his acoustic skill sets. After playing some fairly predictable but lovely changes at the beginning of ‘Wild Horses’ he stopped and muttered, “They all sound the same, sorry,” and during a more heated instrumental break he teased that he might “set the place on fire.” At one point, he reminded us that we were indeed lucky to live so closely to an actual music school.

But good-natured ribbing aside, Iron and Wine had nothing to apologise about. We weren’t expecting Yngwie Malmsteen and, honestly, Iron and Wine’s progressions were rock solid, dynamically spot on and perfectly suited to accompany his resounding whisper of a voice.

Although a drum kit remained onstage, it was a blessing that nobody climbed on top of a stool to join in. A few patrons compared Iron and Wine to James Taylor and the comparison makes sense. Both exude comforting vocals; both have a history of being incredibly prolific and both make guitar magic with simple chords. In fact, Beam’s soft shuffle has a kind of ‘Carolina in My Mind’ appeal.

Fans yelled requests out passionately after Beam paused, to ask, “What do you guys want to hear?” From the balcony, it was hard to distinguish the titles over the shouts. He chose not to play ‘Boy with a Coin’ or some of his tunes that on records bear sophisticated orchestration, but he pleased many with classics that contained unleashed chains of images that started out concretely but grew bolder and more eerie and graphic with each breath. Like a storefront preacher, Iron and Wine can craftily milk a phrase, especially when it conveys the ambiguity of the human condition. And much like Dr. Seuss in the classic ‘The Cat in the Hat’, he uses simple words to build up layer upon layer of irony, leaving the listener clamouring for resolution.

At one point, he congratulated a married couple in the first row. “Six and a half years? What do you get for that? A vacuum cleaner?” Juxtaposing such comments with his endearing falsetto and references to spirituality, he sustained high interest. Beam snucked in music from his latest album without a plug or fanfare. In fact, there was little deviation from his repartee and string of sonnets and blues-based ballads. His approach created such intimacy that a young woman cried out, “Can I hug you?” Iron and Wine smiled back shyly and answered, “I’ve been giving a spiritual hug all evening.”

From the bible-laced ‘Southern Anthem’ to the infectious, upbeat and unpredictable ‘Grace for Saints and Ramblers’ – “There were banged up heads stealing first base ('Ghost on Ghost', 2013) to the word salad ‘Lover’s Revolution’ from the same record, he varied themes. He sang confidently of strong but challenged women – ‘Jezebel’ ('Woman King', 2005) - “She was born to be the woman I would know” and about an earlier obsession ‘Jesus the Mexican Boy’ ('The Sea and the Rhythm', 2003), who “fell by the tracks but he lifted me high/Kissing my head like a brother and never asking why.” He mashed up love and metaphorical wildlife ('The Creek and the Cradle', 2002) in ‘Lion’s Mane’ – “love is the best sensation…” and rattled off his roots in ‘Southern Anthem’.

‘Belated Promise Ring’ ('Around the Well', 2009) was a song that really brought out his penetrating warmth. “I once gave my Rebecca a belated promise ring and she sold it to the waitress on a train.” The translucent melody and singsong chordal structure balanced out the quirky narration.

In ‘Upward over the Mountain’, as in a number of his songs, he mentions the matriarch. “Mother remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body?” And no matter how many shapes his hands made on the fret board, he remained poetic, as in ‘Trapeze Swinger’:

“Happily. By the rose branch laughing. With bruises on my chin” he sang; as though every word not enunciated, not appreciated, would land him in jail.

One song Iron and Wine did not sing, although it was repeatedly requested, was his early cover of the Postal Service's ‘Such Great Heights'. It brought him first fame when it appeared on the 'Garden State' soundtrack. But in an interview I had with Beam after 2011’s 'Kiss Each Other Clean' came out – ‘Tree by the River’ from that album set off sparks tonight - I realised then and now that Iron and Wine seems surprisingly unaware or unfazed by the almost fanatical admiration that surrounds him. Or as Beam might intone, “I’m dressed beside the ashes of the fire”; leaving you to ponder his true nature.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at

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