R’n’r Confessional: Ironing it Out

I recently spent a week or so in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  Calvin is a Reformed Christian school that prides itself on thoughtful engagement of the arts from a Christian perspective, as well as its open-mindedness in such matters.  In keeping with their long-standing tradition of inviting artists not of the Christian tradition to appear and speak at the Festival, Calvin this year invited Iron and Wine to play in their gorgeous Fine Arts Center at the conclusion of the Festival, and Iron and Wine principal Sam Beam allowed a Calvin student to interview him in (of all places) the school chapel, where he at first appeared to be stoned but it was readily apparent that he was, more than anything, nervous.
And why shouldn’t he have been?  There he was, bearded and brown-shirted like a monk in front of a floor-to-ceiling organ, answering questions both about the creative process and the role of biblical imagery in his songwriting.  For the most part, Beam’s responses, both in the words he said as well as the timbre of his voice, mimicked his recordings as Iron and Wine: he was soft-spoken, humble, refusing however politely to reveal much about himself personally and making careful consideration not to step on toes while remaining honest (“I hope this doesn’t offend anybody,” he said at one point, “but I’m not a Christian.”).  It was interesting to see him in such a setting though, without a guitar to hide behind and three hundred ears ready to listen to stories (prodded out of the ever-respectful Beam by the interviewer) about being asked by Wheaton College, another Christian school, not to curse during a recent performance.   This question came twenty minutes after Beam referred to himself as a “badass” to the delight of those gathered.  Beam alternated in his words between tension and calm, but his deadpan delivery was only occasionally pocked with a Georgian drawl or emotional rise.  I, for one, was hoping that he’d at least drop a “y’all” in there somewhere, in the interest of keeping things lively.
That night, junk-country band Califone preceded Iron and Wine on the FAC stage performing intricate and experimental folkisms to a (literally, I suppose) rapt audience.  There was a sense of hanging in time as the group crescendoed and decrescendoed, effortlessly mixing atonal guitar solos with pedal steel guitar and handclaps from a MacBook next to the drummer. The set was a mystical affair, replete with starts, stops, beauty, noise, grace, despair; meandering through a thousand points of light and dark.  After having held the crowd to their hearts for an hour, the band downshifted and ended with a long, quiet jam that only barely moved; percussionist Ben Massarella tinkling bits of metal like he was in Wilco, guitarists Jim Becker and Tim Rutili trading arrhythmic non-riffs with such gentle force that I began to wonder whether their amps were still miked. To be honest, the gentille jam was very, very boring, but it was paradoxically impossible to turn away from.  And just when it began to appear that Califone were going to blow all of the capital that they had worked for in the past hour by essentially forgetting that there were warm bodies in the seats in front of them, Rutili leaned into the microphone and wheezed the opening lines to an ancient Baptist hymn: “I am a pilgrim, and a stranger, travelling through this wearisome land.”  No chairs creaked; no shoes scuffed the auditorium floor.  Then, just as quietly as he’d begun, Rutili laid his guitar on the stage floor and Califone exited stage right as the once-seated crowd granted a (for Calvin) rare standing ovation.
Califone’s show could only have ended with the recitation of those two lines.  There are probably no other words in the musical traditions within which the group work that better evoke what their set meant.  I don’t know if Rutili is a Christian or not, but, if he’s not, it was genius to say – say, say, say, as in to confess and profess – those lines to a crowd that would be collectively waking up early for church the next morning.  In two lines, Rutili summed up not only the wandering “otherness” (which, in the Bible, is what the word “holiness” actually means) of the band’s music, but of the experience of trying to communicate and identify with a group of people to which you do not belong.  It’s tiring, and anyone who’s awake will tell you that if you care to listen.  It perhaps explains Sam Beam’s nerves as he sat under the gaze of resurrection eyes that afternoon in the chapel, trying to communicate in a way he wasn’t totally comfortable to a group of people who, he may have rightly feared, may not have been totally comfortable with him.  By invoking a hymn, Rutili attempted to draw his church-going audience to himself; by calling himself a pilgrim, he made his stance clear, a psalmic confession.
Art is about the relationship between the artist and his or her audience.  A good artist should make the effort to communicate true to his or her own vision, and a good audience should be willing to have the respect for the artist’s individual worth to at least attempt to engage on those terms.  If art is about our trying to communicate what it means to be human and alive, we should hope for ears to hear and eyes to see and understand the work around us.  It should be no surprise that we take such delight in art that communicates well; in a very real and literal way, it’s like spending time with a close friend.  I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Califone set was a magical experience because the people in the audience self-identify as Christian and are thus inherently concerned with other people, because to do so would be to patronize both sides, Christian and non-Christian alike.  But what the audience  (prepped by a week of speeches from writers both of the faith and not) and the students (taught over and again to appreciate art as a genuine and honest form of loving one’s neighbor) and the band (attempting to create a unique, original, and beautiful thought, which is a strangely rare commodity these days) achieved together was something of what I think all of this was supposed to look like before we all decided that the best music was the sounds of our own voices and that the best films play exclusively in our mirrors.
In other words, it was a holy communion of the highest order, in some ways on a par with any trip to the altar rail.  It shifted boring show after boring show into an inarguable logic; one of those strange moments of grace that glides like an expert bobsledder’s icy groove, at once wild and completely tamed.


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