Photos by Kate Shafer

Sam Beam’s Iron And Wine project used to be pseudonymous—Beam was Iron and Wine; Iron and Wine was Beam. The name conjured up an image of a soft-spoken and heavily bearded man playing acoustic guitar, singing wistful melodies about life and loss in the vein of many before him. It’s a good image, but when I learned that Iron And Wine was playing to a sold-out Radio City Music Hall, I was unsure how it could translate to such a massive space. I couldn’t quite see a rapt audience sitting down in perfectly silent attention for two hours, listening to a man play guitar and sing about life. Radio City holds 6,000 people. Beam would have to have a hell of a beard.

It turned out, however, that things have changed. Iron And Wine has spawned a sprawling ten-person backing band, complete with horns, percussion, backup singers and guitars. Leading this intimidating band is Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter turned-frontman. Over two hours at Radio City, Iron and Wine started as a small collective of musicians and underwent a Stop Making Sense-like gradual addition of the captivating touring band, which added a bounce and sense of urgency that folk music often lacks. For a few songs in the middle, the band even became a jam band, improvising on the extended groove of Beam’s songs—which, it turns out, suit themselves really well for a massive band.

Beam himself was as bearded as ever, but possessed a kind of awed swagger that accompanies one’s first time on the Radio City stage. He bantered with the massive crowd, commenting on everything from the glowsticks that came in the drink (“What is this? It looks like a rave?” followed by techno noises) to the self-mocking cries of “Judas!” when he picked up the electric guitar (“Just so you know, Judas was Jesus’ favorite”). At times, he couldn’t believe where the hell he had found himself—Beam sometimes gave the impression of a kid musician onstage for the first time, asking the tech guys to adjust the lights just for fun and asking the crowd on the third level (his emphasis) to cheer for him.

The frontman was phenomenally grateful the entire time for the cheery audience, which bantered back—the gorgeous acoustic of the venue delivering every shout to Beam’s ears, miles away. There’s a reason Radio City is a great venue, and I was amazed at the pristine quality of every note he played and sang. I could hear every enunciated word, and every pluck of the strings, even from the back of the auditorium.

At the encore, Beam dismissed his killer live band and came out to a darkened stage and a single spotlight—a bearded guy with a guitar once more. Only I was wrong. Beam’s voice struck through the cavernous space, with zero echo and zero resonance—as if he was right next to me. The songs he played filled every inch of the atmosphere, so much that I was unsure why he even had a ten-person band, when one guitar was all he needed. Beam ended with a soft song about death, playing slowly and softly. Suddenly I heard it. Nothing at all. A rapt audience of 6,000 was sitting in perfectly silent attention.

Then they got up to cheer.