Last night I attended one of several Nonesuch Records 50th Anniversary concerts taking place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The featured artists were Devendra Banhart, Stephin Merritt, and Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine). The opportunity to see these three artists on a single concert is extremely rare, so I’m fortunate to live in New York City. I’m also thankful for the heads up about the concert from my good friend Matthew, who by the way, introduced me to all three of these performers.
Devendra, Stephin, and Sam are contemporary singer-songwriters that have achieved a fair amount of commercial success, but have not reached the heights of stardom. They fly below the highest levels of musical fame in the United States, and because of the own personal styles they will probably never reach the same level as superstars like Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, or Bono.
While I cannot say I was surprised from the performances last night, I will say I was blown away—especially by Sam Beam. Each of these gentlemen brought exactly what they do best to the stage. Devendra delivered an eccentric performance on an electric guitar. A good portion of his set was in Spanish (he lived in Venezuela for much of his childhood) and the anecdotes between songs were similarly bizarre. Stephin Merritt performed a set of songs in alphabetical order selected from his many projects (Future Bible Heroes, Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, musical works for stage, etc.) accompanied only by ukelele and, for one song, metronome. His style of clever, irreverent songwriting was ideal for the event. I would have preferred to have seen him perform with a band however; after several songs his format of strumming on ukelele and singing extremely low notes had difficulty sustaining energy from beginning to end.
As I mentioned before, Sam Beam’s performance was the best of the three. When he came on stage he asked the audience what we’d like to hear, and played our requests throughout his whole set. He sang only two songs that night that weren’t audience suggestions. His visceral stage presence, along with his physical lyricism and the naked sound of only the voice and guitar, was incredibly effective. His last few albums have featured more orchestration, but I’ve found again and again that Sam’s real power as a musician comes across when he performs only with a guitar. Hearing him again in this context was quite moving.
I doubt I’ll ever get to see a concert bill like this again. I was fortunate to be living in the right place at the right time, and that Nonesuch records could assemble such a line up. I look forward to seeing all three of these performers again.