Though it was only an EP, the Iron & Wine/Calexico disc In The Reins was one of the year’s most anticipated and intriguing releases — one that, impressively, lived up to the hype. The artistic grounds for collaboration were ideal: Iron & Wine leader Sam Beam is an uncommonly engaging singer and songwriter whose mostly minimalist work has at times suggested possibilities for grander arrangements, while Calexico is a masterfully versatile and tasteful instrumental combo that stands to benefit from an infusion of quality original material.
Their fall tour was an equally auspicious endeavor, allowing for individual sets by both artists plus brief special-guest appearances in each city before culminating with a ten-piece tour de force highlighting material from In The Reins. If it wasn’t quite the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was at least an admirably assembled rippling rumble.
Most everyone missed the Seattle show’s first special guest, Vancouver band Pink Mountaintops, as they went on about 20 minutes before the advertised showtime; such were the pitfalls of trying to accommodate a smorgasbord of artists before the Moore Theater’s 11 p.m. curfew. Calexico took the stage at 8:10 and played for a half-hour, its seven-song set highlighted by a dramatic new song, “All Systems Red”, apparently destined for a J.D. Foster-produced disc due out in spring 2006. Founders Joey Burns and John Convertino led a supporting cast that incorporated everything from trumpet to vibes to keyboards to pedal steel, with some of the musicians switching instruments between songs.
David Bazan of Pedro The Lion provided the next special-guest surprise, turning in a four-song solo acoustic set that was well-received if not revelatory. Iron & Wine followed, beginning with a solo acoustic turn by Beam on “Sunset Soon Forgotten” that served as a nice segue from Bazan’s set. Beem proceeded to build up the backing crew with careful deliberation: sister Sarah Beam added backing vocals on “Muddy Hymnal”, then drummer Troy Tague joined for “Jezebel”. Soon enough the stage was overflowing with two drummers (Tague teaming with Calexico’s Convertino), bassist Volker Zander, Sarah on fiddle, and Paul Niehaus on steel.
Beam vacillated between bluesy, riff-dominated tunes such as “Free Until They Cut Me Down” and gracefully understated numbers such as “Naked As We Came”. The peak of Iron & Wine’s 45-minute set was “The Trapeze Swinger” (from the soundtrack to In Good Company), a hypnotic eight-verse epic that put the Beam siblings’ instinctive harmonies front-and-center.
Though several members of both bands had been commingling for a good while by this point, the formal “Iron & Wine/Calexico” segment began when Burns announced, “We’d like to start off with the ‘He Lays In The Reins’ song” (the EP’s leadoff track). The subsequent sonic shift was a sensible step from Iron & Wine’s delivery — of a similar piece, but upping the ante as the band expanded to its full roll call of ten. (The “roll call” was literal; when Beam counted only eight members present, he enlisted the audience to shout out the names of Niehaus and Jacob Valenzuela, effectively summoning them to the stage.)
By then it was 10:15, allowing the full ensemble 45 minutes to finish out the show. They squeezed in five songs from In The Reins, with varying degrees of success: “History Of Lovers”, by far the catchiest song on disc, was a bass-heavy disappointment live, but “Prison On Route 41″, with Burns taking the lead vocal supported by sublime harmonies from Beam, was magical.
Two covers offered a deeper glimpse into the common ground that bonds these two acts. Their take on the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” benefited from a royally rich arrangement crowned by trumpet and steel; it echoed a classic version of the song recorded fifteen years ago by a similarly brilliant collaboration between British folk chanteuse June Tabor and the hard-charging Celtic-trad Oyster Band. Finally, Beam and company — joined by the night’s final special guest, Sup Pop songstress Rosie Thomas — sent everyone home with a resplendent reading of the Willie Nelson hit “Always On My Mind”, twisting its melody ever so slightly, but staying true to the song’s simple story and spirit.