Ahhh, another evening spent buried in the music at Geneva NY’s Smith Opera House. After my freshman encounter with the 120-year old historical theatre building back in 2011, the Smith has(dare I say it) started to feel like home returning just two weeks after seeing the stick of country-folk dynamite that was The Lone Bellow. This time around Geneva had the pleasure of hosting the masterfully versatile band Iron & Wine with opening act The Secret Sisters, which was a treat not only given their respective accolades but because it was an evening truly fit for feeling like you were out beneath the stars.
That little architectural slight-of-hand aside, the Smith Opera House once again proved it’s strength as an eclectic venue stop last Saturday night. Acoustics rang with an undeniable sheen out into the expanse of high ceilings, deep balconies and the rich smell of so many histories come and gone within walls like those. So beautifully sprung, yet so quickly evaporated before so many hungry eyes. Environment is everything as I see it, and a theatre like the Smith adds weight to every word, gravity to the melody, and beauty well-worn into the palm of each beat.
That steadying presence was put to good use as the evening led off with The Secret Sisters, AKA Alabama’s latest answer to those deceptively upbeat and charismatic singing duos first truly popularized in the 50’s and 60’s. Real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers brought a comfortably harmonized yet effusive blend of country, gospel, blues-rock and swampy Southern charm to their opening set. Backed by a full supporting cast, the two wove cheerily between lyrical heartaches, jailbreaks, murder ballads and an overall sense of optimism that was one bridge away from a shot of whiskey followed by a lithium chaser. All in all, quite a way to have 40 minutes pass through the mirror.
By comparison I’m not quite sure what Iron & Wine was supposed to live up to exactly, but as he has since the band’s inception in 2002, lead man Sam Beam makes up the length and breadth of his own expectations. Accompanied by a versatile backing of guitars, banjo, keyboards, accordion, harmonica and electric ukelele, Beam wove well beyond the origin of his lo-fi folk roots into soul, R&B, pop, jazz and a wealth of catalogue-brightening orchestration. Though often his best moments were still the quietest as the band took a break mid-set and Beam stood alone, capo in hand to field a bevy of(suddenly) enthusiastic song requests. And while he did stumble once or twice with older material, songs like “Such Great Heights” and “Naked As We Came” poured outward with a haunting bliss packed so neatly inside pretty guitar lines and Beam’s hushed and yearning vocals.
And although he seemed nervous at times digging through so many of his own songs, Beam was the composite free and easy storyteller both in banter and in lyricisms throughout the night. In a fraction of a moment he’d loosely tease or joke around about how “weird” this was going to get, and in the next he’d fixate the crowd within the capturing rhythms of “Boy With A Coin” and “one for the chair-dancers” with “Grace For Saints and Ramblers”. And while I would have much preferred a crowd that felt a BIT less content to move to the music from their seats, the mood was vibrant, lush, and fun to keep the toes actively in rhythm to.
So while I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an avid Iron & Wine listener going into last Saturday’s evening at the Smith Opera House, their headlining set alongside The Secret Sisters made for one of the top live events I’ve seen so far in 2014. The historical ambiance, casual atmosphere and mellowing sounds made for a night so pleasant that knowing all the words, was certainly no requirement.