On the back of a beautiful performance at End of the Road festival in Wiltshire, Iron and Wine, the moniker of Sam Beam returned to London’s Union Chapel to a silent, near motionless crowd hypnotised by his Southern, sombre folk songs.
The Texan-based musician’s pastoral verse may disguise what a charming and perhaps surprisingly happy character he is, gleefully interacting with the crowd, who sat as attentively as any Sunday service listening instead to a new kind of sermon proposing upon reaching “the pearly gates, [he’ll] do [his] best to make a drawing of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl, an angel kissing on a sinner”. “It’s weird to sing this in a church, but it’s fun”, Beam confessed upon finishing “The Trapeze Swinger”, his nine-minute epic tracing birth and childhood, old age, regret and redemption.
Joined on stage by pianist and pump organ player, the set offered more contrast in tempo than its ‘one man and his guitar’ set up may initially suggest. Opening with a vocals only rendition of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” the 90 minute performance touched upon all corners of Iron & Wine’s back catalogue, rarities and a surprise cover of The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” with which he closed the set, assisted by the quartet of melding vocals of The Low Anthem. Two new songs from next year’s forthcoming album Kiss Each Other Clean were offered, the first of which neatly follows the thick percussive style of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog LP, the second, perhaps titled “Godless Brother in Love”, somewhat reminiscent of early Jackson Browne in its combined swirling piano and cascading scales, was a welcome change from the wholly guitar and banjo centered back porch storytelling of Beam’s past recordings.
Mid set found a percussive, south American inspired jaunt in his performances of “Woman King” and “House By the Sea”, symbolising the rhythmic peak of his performance, which steadily decreased in tempo and mood with “Sodom, South Georgia”‘s opening lament “Papa died smiling….“; clearly an old crowd favourite from 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Returning to the crowd’s thunderous applause, an encore Beam stated was uncommon for him (I find this a little hard to believe), the evening was wrapped up in a soothing solo version of “He Lays in the Reins”, a track taken from a Calexico split EP recorded back in 2005.
While last night’s show at Union Chapel lacked a large backing band which provides a more solid reinvention of his older songs, and brings to life again The Shepherd’s Dog‘s rich instrumentation, it’s Beam’s lyrics; drawing upon human relationships, nature and nurture, life and death that were the touchstone to the congregation. “I sing these songs so often that I just sing the words without even thinking about it” Beam told us at the beginning of the evening, and as an audience we, captivated, noted every word.
A rare and often haunting performance from a singer songwriter who, for many, is firmly in place as one of the most intricately beautiful lyricists of latter years, who instrumentally reinvents himself so subtly that he is capable of being at one and the same time refreshing and nostalgic.
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All Photos by Michael Farrant (All rights reserved)