Monday, August 3, 2009
Iron and Wine: huh?
I was anticipating the performance of Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) perhaps more than any other at Saturday's Folk Festival 50 (Newport Folk Festival). The glowing reviews, the profile in the New York Times Magazine, the adulation of his followers.
So immediately after Mavis Staples and her marvelous band had the entire audience at the Harbor Tent standing and grooving to I'll Take You There, Lucy and I grabbed a few seats from some sweating advocates of old-fashioned soul. And it was lucky we did. Because the Iron and Wine fans descended on the tent, and empty seats disappeared quickly. We looked around to see the tent filled with mostly young people, and the crowd outside the tent appeared impenetrable (we would find out so, soon).
Sam Beam came out to a thunderous ovation, and after complaining about having to follow Mavis Staples (a legitimate gripe), he set into a sedate cover of Such Great Heights, which was made famous and made Iron and Wine famous, when it was used on the soundtrack for the much-overpraised indy film Garden State. It has since been co-opted for TV and movie theater commercials. The gathered young people sang along, quietly and reverently, and Lucy whispered "I feel like I'm in the middle of a cult."
Another thunderous ovation followed. I raised an eyebrow to Lucy, and she winced back. I was completely underwhelmed by the performance (though I will admit, the playback on NPR sounds, somehow less grating). Beam is a slightly pudgy, hirsute, average looking soul, with absolutely no charisma, that I could detect. He sings with a rather mundane, sometimes whispered, occasionally falsettoed bleat. And his lyrics are charmless and banal and way too precious. All the more mysterious that the gathered crowd hung on every word, cheered his rather souless guitar work, and cheered lustily when he made his way through one of his meandering songs.
Lucy and I gave up after three songs. I wondered, as I struggled to wend my way through the huge crowd (there must have been 3000 young, wide-eyed people crammed around the Harborside Stage), with all the talent I had witnessed at the festival, how it was that this particular mediocre talent had cultivated and captivated this fervent and worshipful mass. Beam has been compared to Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Elliott Smith, all particularly unfair comparisons, unless those comparisons mention how his talent pales in comparison. I wondered further if it is proof that bland, unchallenging music, propped up by commercial marketing, will always find its way to success when the real talent of say, a Nick Drake or Elliot Smith, goes unrecognized until the musician is long in the grave.
Good on Sam Beam. He's figured a way to make a living on music. Good for the adoring masses, they've found someone on whom to project their search for individuality. Good on me, I got out while the getting was good.
One note on the young crowd at the festival. The most frequent reaction to a good song played by any of the favored acts was not for they young fans to stand and cheer, but to pick up their phones and text or twitter a friend. I saw it happen fifty times, if I saw it once.
And to forestall the comments which are sure to question my judgment. Yes, I'm old. But I've been to hundreds of concerts. I've seen Dylan, and Paul Simon, and Elliot Smith. I saw, and loved the Avett Brothers six years ago. I've witnessed Jimi, and the Kinks, Townes van Zandt and Andrew Bird, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash. I have a sense of what's good, and what's not, and I'm afraid I don't get Iron and Wine at all.