Iron and Wine, Calexico and Others at WFUV’s Holiday Cheer

MUSIC REVIEW New York Times 

Holiday Cheer: Beth Orton, Nick Lowe and Glen Hansard were among the artists joining Calexico and Iron and Wine at the Beacon Theater.
Published: December 11, 2013

In 2005, the songwriter Sam Beam, who records as Iron and Wine, and the Tucson band Calexico released an EP they recorded together, “In the Reins,” giving Mr. Beam’s songs some of Calexico’s Southwestern, country-mariachi flavor. Christmastime brings family reunions, and for its annual Holiday Cheer benefit concert, on Tuesday night at the Beacon Theater, the Americana-loving public radio station WFUV (90.7 FM) brought Iron and Wine and Calexico back together, adding other sometime collaborators and kindred spirits: Kathleen Edwards, Beth Orton, Nick Lowe, Glen Hansard and Amos Lee. Calexico backed them all, jovial and versatile.

“That’s a lot of music in their brains this evening,” Mr. Beam said admiringly.

Mr. Beam sang, in his gentle high tenor, about memories and connections, families and lovers. His songs, at their core, are folky ballads that mingle storytelling with more abstruse thoughts. But he has embellished them in various ways through the years: with folk-rock, country, jazz, even a little R&B. The “In the Reins” EP was his first experiment with horns — Calexico’s pair of mariachi trumpets — but not his last; two horn players from his current Iron and Wine band, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Stuart Bogie on saxophone and flute, were also on hand, giving some songs a nudge toward jazz.

Calexico carried Ms. Edwards’s “Soft Place to Land” from a pensive hush into sorrowful peaks, and it stoked the rhythm just enough behind two incantatory songs from Ms. Orton, the chugging “Call Me the Breeze” and the enveloping “Mystery.” It was just retro enough for Mr. Lowe’s wry, elegantly turned novelty song “Christmas at the Airport” and straightforwardly pop for his “Cruel to Be Kind.”

For Mr. Hansard, the Irish songwriter behind the musical “Once,” Calexico was attentive to the songs’ dramatic arcs of loss and redemption. Mr. Hansard had new songs, “Lowly Deserter,” which got some bluesy trombone from Mr. Fowlkes, and “Her Mercy,” which he sang with a guest from the audience, Moji, adding gospelly swoops. Later, Calexico seized the Van Morrison roots in Mr. Hansard’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night.”

Along with three songs from “In the Reins,” Mr. Beam slyly chose Iron and Wine lyrics that mention Christmas but aren’t particularly festive: the breezy lounge groove of “The Desert Babbler” and the stolid, Band-like “Sodom, South Georgia,” which juxtaposes a father’s death and a daughter’s birth. For actual holiday songs, the concert had Mr. Lee’s “Holiday Song” and the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” with Ms. Edwards providing a particularly tart comeuppance to the song’s drunken male narrator. The full ensemble also shared Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — not the first time it has been mistaken for holiday music, but sung with fervor.

But that wasn’t the finale. Mr. Beam returned, alone, to sing “The Trapeze Swinger,” a tour de force of circling melody and visionary imagery, from childhood memories to heavenly transfiguration. The family reunion was over; Iron and Wine could, if necessary, continue solo.

WFUV (90.7 FM) will broadcast the recorded show on Dec. 23 at noon and on Dec. 25 at 7:30 p.m.

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