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Spreading his wings; Iron & Wine concert unveils bigger, lusher sound

The place was packed, a full house viscerally buzzing with anticipation as opener the Low Anthem prepped the crowd for the arrival of headliner Iron & Wine.

Tickets for this gig flew out of the Town Ballroom box office and through Internet portals with alarming speed when the event was announced.

Iron & Wine -- led by songwriter and chief architect Samuel Beam, he of the Jesuslike beard and gorgeously ruminative vocal melodies -- made it big on the strength of the achingly melodic chamber-folk of its earliest works. The placement of "Such Great Heights" on the soundtrack to the 2004 film "Garden State" brought Beam and Co. to the attention of an entire generation of indie rock-loving hipsters.

Many among this group finding themselves at last Friday's Town Ballroom show were in for a bit of a surprise, particularly if they were hoping that Beam would still look and sound like the man who sang "Such Great Heights." That song, like most of Iron & Wine's music previous to the release of the new "Kiss Each Other Clean," was delicate, intimate, beautiful, but small and decidedly not funky. Beam showed up with less hair and way more supporting musicians. The sound this amazing ensemble conjured was big, soulful, lush, and believe it or not, pretty funky.

No, I didn't hear anyone scream "Judas!" between songs, as some poor deluded English concertgoer so famously did back when Bob Dylan was first going electric. But it would indeed take an open mind for the seasoned Iron & Wine fan to embrace this new full-band fluency and general lack of self-absorption in Beam's latest incarnation of the group.

With the help of guitarist Jim Becker, and the horn section of Stuart Bogie, Elliot Bergman and Justin Walter lending a fleet-footed soulfulness to previously po-faced beauties like "In My Lady's House" and "Woman King," Beam seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, and also enjoying the crowd -- the members of which, if they did indeed have reservations concerning this new direction, weren't being particularly vocal about it.

The combined effect of hearing the new "Kiss Each Other Clean" material up against the funked-up, filled-out reinterpretations of older songs reminded one of the apotheosis of My Morning Jacket from earnest, reverb-drenched new-folk traditionalists and Southern roots loyalists into a progressive ensemble capable of coming up with lithe R&B in the mode of "Thank You Too." Beam seemed to be spreading his wings, taking reserved delight in a new expansiveness in the Iron & Wine modus operandi. He's found a new balance between the earnest nature of his early material and what appears to be a deep-seated desire to loosen up a bit.

If the crowd belonged to Iron & Wine, it still possessed a generosity of spirit that allowed it to embrace the Low Anthem's eerily beautifully new American-gothic sound. The band has been here before -- it brought down the house while opening for the Swell Season inside Ani DiFranco's Babeville last year -- but the excellent acoustics and inviting sightlines at the Town Ballroom contrasted pleasantly with the cool-but-billowing reverb common in DiFranco's church.

The Providence, R.I., quartet didn't steal the show -- that would be just plain rude! -- but it offered the assembled an opportunity to bask in the strange beauty of its idiosyncratic folk-based sound. This was chamber-folk, in essence, which essentially meant no drum kit walloping listeners in the chest, and a preference for acoustic instruments over their electric brethren. Upright bass, clarinet, French horn and even a bowed saw -- all contributed to the ethereal, little-boy-lost-in-a-dense-wood air of the haunting (and haunted) songwriting.

This highly anticipated show broke the seal on a host of gigs planned at the Town Ballroom in the coming months. The first of these take place this week, as freak-show collective Of Montreal arrives at 8 p.m. Sunday, followed by the New Pornographers and guests the Walkmen joining together at 8 p.m. Monday. On Tuesday, the Town will be given over to jam-tronica improv collective EOTO, whose newest effort, "Fire the Lasers!" is one of the coolest electronic music collections of recent years. eos

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