Tom Hoskins reviews Iron & Wine live
In my mind, I imagined that an Iron & Wine show would follow a similar trajectory to Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Sam Beam would come on stage with just a guitar and maybe an old radio to play a track from The Creek Drank The Cradle; from there his set would develop somewhat chronologically, instruments continuously being brought on stage as the sound of his catalogue diversifies and expands, until a full band conclusion of ‘Lovers’ Revolution’ triumphantly finished proceedings. I’m clearly not a prophet, as this was pretty much reversed, opening with a joyous rendition of ‘The Desert Babbler’ displaying the quality of the band (grand piano, strings, brass, backing singers and all) and finishing with Beam playing an impressively intimate encore, all alone on the cavernous stage.
The flawless sound of the Barbican did justice to the gorgeous Ghost on Ghost. Beam expressed disbelief that the English watched concerts in such a beautiful venue, along with gibes at the crowds’ politeness (“I’m gonna bring my kids out to show them how to behave”) which he put down to it being a Tuesday evening; but the clarity and balance of the sound justified such a setting. Odd that it is now so essential for a musician who started with such lo-fi values to be heard in hi-fi, but throughout his career Beam has written such perfect melodies that they couldn’t help but flourish in such conditions.
The set drew on all elements of Iron & Wine’s catalogue. Some songs were reworked and some stayed true to the original. The size of the band fluctuated throughout the performance and there was a certain spontaneity which made it all the more authentic; Beam took requests from the crowd, with whose embarrassing heckling he dealt admirably, and even made the band, who had returned to the stage, sit and watch as he chose to play another sparsely arranged song. It was a long performance, but captivating the whole way through due to its variation: the jazz freak out halfway through ‘Caught In The Briars’; the sentimental 50’s breeze of ‘Tree By The River’; the lonesome bard singing ‘Resurrection Fern’. The one element linking everything together, however, was the most powerful, versatile and impressive aspect. Beam’s stunning voice found its place in the same makes-you-melt category of modern singers as Richard Hawley, and justified his taking of inspiration from old music (as in, ‘20s-’50s old).
Few acts would dream of performing a set without playing two singles from their most recent album; even fewer, however, would manage to do so and still achieve such a coherent and crowd-pleasing concert. Iron & Wine’s catalogue and live show is now of such a quality that this was no-one’s main concern and it would have been only the most miserly who went away feeling short-changed.