Sam Beam and Andrew Bird (Photo by Jess Wasson)
When he introduced “Evening On The Ground” at Wolf Trap recently, Sam Beam, who performs under the moniker Iron & Wine, went off on a tangent about the mythical figure Lilith. She was, he explained, Adam’s first wife, but “he kicked her to the curb because she wanted to fuck on top.” And it only got weirder from there.
At a break in the lyrics at Wolf Trap on July 28, Sam started talking about a “young, sweaty, Nancy Pelosi, naked…” He then added, “…riding on the back of a horse, a young, sweaty horse with the face of Mitch McConnell. They’re both on fire.” He invited the audience to “imagine what the sound is of a flaming $30 million bill.”
Beam began his set at Wolf Trap that night with a cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” which he originally recorded for the soundtrack to the indie film Garden State. That recording broke his career wide open. Before he started playing, he mentioned the evening’s other act, Andrew Bird, saying, “He’s coming at you to whistle his way into your heart. He’ll never come out if you let him in.”
Watch Iron & Wine perform The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” live from Balzac’s coffee shop on YouTube:
Beam came to music somewhat later in life, when he was already pushing 30. At the time, he was teaching filmmaking at the Miami Institute of Art. After growing up in Chapin, South Carolina, Beam studied art — painting, to be specific — at Virginia Commonwealth University, then got his MFA from Florida State University’s film school. As you might expect of a former college professor, his material is cerebral. With his bushy, thick beard, Beam looks like he could walk into any lecture hall in American and be assumed to be the instructor.
Perhaps my idea of college professors is colored by my experiences focusing on the social sciences and humanities, but Beam is considerably stranger than anyone I had as a teacher. And I went to Oberlin, which is known is being more than a little out there. (I never saw it happen, but I heard stories about students and faculty doing drugs together.) I wasn’t sure how he got to saying it, but after “Sunset Soon Forgotten,” he asked the audience, “Do you ever feel like that? Like Songzilla?” (I can’t say I do.) “Lovers Revolution” followed, the he segued into “Talking To Fog,” saying he “wouldn’t call it sad, but it’s not happy. There’s a lot of space in between.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw Iron & Wine. When I did my research on him, I learned that he is famously private, even withdrawn, with the media, and has a reputation for being very difficult to interview. His onstage demeanor came as a more-than-pleasant surprise, as he was quite in tune with the audience, even riffing off a few comments from the front rows. I half-expected a morose, withdrawn person to be on stage, and the opposite could not have been more true.
“Resurrection Fern” came next, and — again, I didn’t precisely follow all the logic that led up to this — then he said, “Let’s clap for confusion! Let’s hear it for uncertainty!”
Watch Iron & Wine perform “Resurrection Fern” live on YouTube:
Sam finished his solo acoustic set with “The Truest Stars We Know.” After a short break, Andrew Bird took the stage with his band. As Sam had alluded, Andrew is an accomplished whistler, as well as a fine multi-instrumentalist: He played both violin and acoustic guitar during his set. A native of Illinois, Bird started his career working mostly in jazz after studying music at Northwestern University. Early in his career, he was part of the swing band The Squirrel Nut Zippers, led by Jimbo Mathis. Last year, the two reunited to record an album, These 13.
Bird published most recent album, Inside Problems, earlier this year. Where 2019’s My Finest Work Yet focused on social and political themes, this latest record is a more inward-looking album. Some of the songs, like “Lone Didion,” which focuses on the noted writer Joan Didion, have an especially literary focus, while others like “Atomized,” “Underlands,” and “Fixed Positions” are more impressionistic.
The set also included some old favorites: “Make a Picture,” “Bloodless,” and “Sisyphus,” his take on the Greek myth on the titan who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill every day, only for the boulder to roll right back down to the bottom.
Watch the official music video for “Make a Picture” by Andrew Bird on YouTube:
Mythology is something that comes up fairly often in Bird’s work. For the last part of the show, Sam joined Andrew, and they performed a series of songs together, with Sam playing guitar and Andrew playing violin. They began with “Orpheo Looks Back,” about the mythological figure who went to the underworld to retrieve his dead lover. Bird described the next tune, “Muddy Hymnal,” as “one of Sam’s songs that’s one of my favorites.”
The set continue to alternate: Bird’s “Are You Serious?,” Beam’s “Father Mountain,” and Bird’s “Manifest” followed.
Watch the official music video for “Manifest” by Andrew Bird on YouTube:
The show began with an opening set by Meshell Ndegeocello, a noted singer-songwriter. Born in German while her father was stationed in the Army there, this was something of a homecoming for her, as she was also raised in DC, attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon High School. Somewhat unusual for a singer-songwriter, her main instrument is the bass, of which she is a very accomplished player.
This show had a lot of variety: There were two full-band sets, a solo set, and the show closed out with a duo set. That variety kept things lively and entertaining — before anything could go on long enough to get wearisome, the show shifted gears, keeping the audience energetic and involved. From beginning of the opening to set until I caught the bus was more than three hours, but the evening went quickly.
A squall broke out during the opening set, which was unfortunate for the folks on the lawn, but it also had the benefit of dropping the temperature significantly. With the sun going down about the same time, the evening became pleasantly cool, and it was another beautiful night among the forested surroundings at Wolf Trap to hear world class music. There’s something deeply invigorating about nights like this one.