Even for somebody with no appetite for contemporary folk, it’d be hard to find fault with Samuel Beam’s continually-lauded, deeply-American folk project Iron & Wine.
Beam has made a strong career of writing highly credible yet totally accessible takes on the classic folk formula and, in the last few weeks has released, through the prestigious 4AD, his fifth studio album, Ghost on Ghost. The album sees him build further upon the relatively poppy writing style adopted for its predecessor, Kiss Each Other Clean, although this time with the addition of brave and exciting nods to jazz and old-fashioned R&B. It’s these facets of Beam’s sound at present – and, of course, the fact that we in the UK don’t see him very often – that makes tonight’s appearance in the illustrious Barbican Centre in central London both something we’re itching in anticipation for and something that could fall hard if badly executed.
“Well hello hello!” intones Beam as he strolls out, sharply dressed, to the packed-out dual-level hall. “Thanks so much for coming, what a treat. This is gonna be fun.” He opens with a track from his new album, ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’, and from the first word, showcases impeccable control of his voice, slipping between chest and falsetto like a soft click of the fingers. With a woody bass backing signature, cooed vocals behind him, and his brass section swaying in unison to his right, Beam looks quite the part to be in the spotlight before his happily admiring crowd.
The collective sound of the band around him is of studio quality, with the three-part string section’s velvet contributions to tracks like ‘Tree by the River’ a delightfully complimentary component. It’s all a very professional production, in fact; the smart venue, smart dress, smart behaviour of the musicians – quite the contrast to Beam’s classically handmade, tatterdemalion folk persona (the beard thankfully having survived the fairly recent smart haircut). Iron & Wine’s rough-cut, gentle-giant facet is tonight made ever-present, though, by his interaction with the audience; not a song finishes without Beam thanking us, or chatting to us in his soft, comforting American voice.
As always with this outfit there’s no confusion about the fact it’s a Samuel Beam enterprise, despite the large number of supporting players. “We’ve been a band for about two weeks,” he tells us, “and I just can’t get enough of them”. The superbly intricate leading guitar lines of ‘Carousel’, however, are unfortunately lost beneath the many layers of the entourage – something which re-occurs throughout the show. Soft whispers of high notes on a grand piano, however, is a truly lovely touch that flutters above it all every now and then.
Beam’s guitar is the focal point of the sound during a wonderfully pitter-patter version of ‘Monkeys Uptown’, for which he pulls a “guitar-specific vintage handkerchief” under the roots of its strings, creating a strong, muted footing for the surrounding hum of organ and lovingly plucked cello. During his famed cover of The Postal Service’s ‘Such Great Height’s’ the string section politely rear their heads to contribute solos to make even the iciest heart melt.
Eventually the band leave Beam solo beneath the spotlight to open up ‘a little Iron & Wine buffet,’ and perform a heartrending ‘Upward Over the Mountain’ - the most intrinsically Iron & Wine segment of the set, and which is met at its close with endless rounds of tearful, tumultuous applause. After much amusing back-and-forth with the crowd, the second track is settled, and we’re treated to a gorgeous solo version of ‘Resurrection Fern’ before he tells us he’s ‘gonna bring the band back out to make a racket now’.
“I’d like to blame this song on my dad and his record collection” he tells us before playing old b-side ‘Lean Into the Light’, which is full to the brim with soft vocals, strings, throaty brass and a luscious organ solo. ‘Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me’, which, with its Blues Brothers-style brass, builds up and up to a fantastically powerful climax, full of crashing cymbals, over the subsiding of which Beam feels like a conductor, leaning in to check on all members of his troupe.
As the show winds down with a solo encore of ‘Naked as We Came’, the inevitable shout of “I love your beard!” springs from somewhere in the crowd. He grins. “Its nice to have invented the beard,” he says, to gales of laughter. “I’ve been grooming all day for you guys.” The modern folk legend is utterly heartwarming – there’s no other word for it. He bids us adieu with “I hope you guys all have safe journeys home and lovely weekends”, and call us smitten, but it really feels like he means it. If only it were always possible to end a long week with something as refreshingly comforting as tonight’s show.