Ours began with unexpectedly clear roads from Baltimore to DC on Feb. 7, a little gift of granted time we spent on margaritas, tatanachos, enchiladas, and a chipotle-spiced chocolate cake in a vanilla-tomatillo sauce about which I’ll dream forever (thanks, Mi Vida). Appetites sated and sun set, we sauntered through the suddenly windy night into The Anthem, its grand floors a makeshift theater lined with rows of cushioned chairs. A space so often filled with almost-untold thousands felt roomier and grander, its chandeliers and balconies suddenly evoking wine-stained lips instead of beer-soaked floors. By the end of the night, though, much of the audience would end it standing, some of it dancing, and the chairs would melt into the background.
I’ve held a long love for the music of Iron & Wine, first discovered when my teenage mind assumed a sense of adulthood, Sam Beam’s easy gift for pairing beauty with humor and humanity something to which — to this day, actually — I aspired to emulate in my own writing, my own living. He does not shy away from conversations on mortality, love, and sex, his music a constant yearning for honesty and acceptance.
I remember where I sat when I first discovered In the Reins, a hard-copy CD plunked into my shitty university computer, my headphones over my ears. It quickly became a soundtrack for a certain kind of day, a certain kind of way to pass the hours; from the double-and-triple meanings in “History of Lovers” (I once wrote an essay about it) to the well-sown equestrian imagery that evoke novels’ worth of stories, it never felt like a thing to leave in the past. In truth, as much as the words of the songs became stitched to my soul, the music around those words became everything I loved most; the open-range sweep of Calexico’s instrumentation, those shades of southwestern jazz and panoramic country, all attached to the whispery beauty of Sam’s and Joey’s (Burns) voices. I loved it and still do.
Listen to In the Reins by Calexico and Iron & Wine on Spotify:
Though Joey Burns and John Convertino (Calexico) have long backed other artists (since their days with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand), In the Reins always felt like a one-off, a never-to-be-repeated gift, a one-night stand to be remembered fondly in the twilight. A the same time, they never stopped playing together — Joey is on The Shepherd’s Dog and Sam is on Carried to Dust and Edge of the Sun — so many of us held onto hope that they’d record together again (while continuing to love the music of both Iron & Wine and Calexico, each of which has released some of my favorite records of the last decade and change).
And so, with all of that, Years to Burn became the pleasantest of surprises in 2019, its title reflecting the sly humors and wisdoms that pervade the music of both Iron & Wine and Calexico. On record (and, it turns out, in person), Calexico and Iron & Wine once more become entangled, a field of sonic briars that cannot be unraveled.
I find it hard to express just how much I loved this show. We sat stage right, closer to Sam than anyone else and a stool which served no purpose but to show its flaked-paint age, to hold a glass of red wine. At first staid, the audience livened song by song, first following the flow on “Follow the Water,” eventually finding a settled groove by the end of “Father Mountain.”
Listen to Years to Burn by Calexico and Iron & Wine on Spotify:
Joey and Sam took turns taking the lead, as they would, joking and smiling. Each settled comfortably into support roles, sliding up and down the necks of their respective guitars for alternatively pretty or muscular solos.
The set featured a number of hoped-for and unexpected highlights, like a cover of Lucinda Williams’s “I Lost It” (from desert island record Car Wheels On a Gravel Road), or the “quietcore” punch of “Naked As We Came” and “Crystal Frontier” (two of the best songs from their collected oeuvre). Or perhaps the delight of “Sunken Waltz” sliding into “Boy with a Coin,” Joey taking the lead on a verse or two himself, an almost-unhinged instrumental run showcasing Joey and John’s gift for emotive playing.
Or maybe the unasked for but sudden humor of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” which they introduced as a song they’d been asked to play for a charity show. Those little humors suffused the show; as men yelled out “I love you” or “We love you” when Sam spoke, he joked that his dad must be moving through the audience. Or, during the 3-song duo moment of the show — just Sam and Joey onstage — Joey teased that he’d gone deep into Sam’s catalog to pick some cuts no one expected; Sam quipped, “I’d love to see what party music of mine you picked up” right before they slinked into “Naked As We Came” (for the uninitiated, it’s not your standard party music).
The songs off Years to Burn shone, especially “The Bitter Suite” and “Midnight Sun” near the backend of the setlist, but the greatest highlights came from In the Reins. The set ended with “History of Lovers” as a pair of dancers became a cavalcade near the edge of the stage, Sam beaming a wide smile at them from his mic, watching their twirls and twists as he unveiled his own about unmoored love. They returned for an encore of “Burn That Broken Bed,” chasing us away to hum, “oh do-do, oh do-do do do” until we found our beds and settled into sleep.
Just un-reined and wild. Beautiful and deep. Funny and true. Honest and human.
Here are a few more photos of Calexico and Iron & Wine at The Anthem on Feb. 7, 2020. All copyright of Matt Ruppert.