Some people are just ludicrously talented. They could come out with a ukelele and a kazoo and subject us to a rendition of Incey Wincey Spider and it would sound amazing. Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam is one of those people. Strolling out onto the stage of London’s wonderful Union Chapel, beard respendant, he began his acoustic set with an acapella rendition of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”. The only sound from the crowd was that of about 800 jaws hitting the ground simultaneously.
To start with a song that requires the full use of his fine, pure falsetto, with no guitar (there is the possibility that the sound man had fallen asleep), would be a dreadful mistake in some other people’s hands. Not our Sam. Magical doesn’t quite cover it. To then follow it up with a rendition of “The Trapeze Swinger” – all nine minutes of it – just goes to show the confidence this man has.
After this, he was joined by his multi-instrumentalist friend, whose name I think may have been Rob. Or Rich. What do you want, for me to take notes? This gentleman showed he knew his way round a piano, and his medieval Rick Wakeman impersonation, playing piano and harmonium simultaneously, was a sight to behold.
The setlist was garnered mainly from The Shepherds Dog, with a few tracks from predecessor Our Endless Numbered Days, a couple of new tracks from the forthcoming album, plus some odds and sods. Songs from The Shepherds Dog stand out the most; as even the album’s simpler tracks like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” feature banjos, glockenspiel, a flute, a sybarytic dwarf playing an ocelot and other such alt-Folk fancies, hearing stripped-down versions brings out the underlying strength of the songs.
Of course, for those of us who are bigger fans of the stripped-down, acoustic versions1, this wasn’t a surprise, though the lack of shock value didn’t detract from the sheer thrill of seeing naked versions of the songs performed live (not played naked, thankfully). The only disappointment was not hearing crowd-pleasers like “Lovesong of the Buzzard” played alongside “Peace Beneath The City” and “Naked As We Came”.
Sam himself is full of Southern gentility and humility. The rapt adoration shown to him by the crowd in the packed out Union Chapel couldn’t be destroyed if he came out wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with “I HATE LONDON” (with “LDN GAY 4 DUBYA” on the back) and proceeded to urinate on the front couple of rows. He clearly loves being onstage and tries hard to make sure we’re happy too – and believe me, not all musicians are like this. Closing with a cover of “Johnny Too Bad”, featuring support act The Low Anthem crooning beautifully in the background, and the single encore leaving us baying for more, before we all trotted off into the rain.
So, a fine evening at a great venue watching a superb musician doing his stuff. What a venue. What a guy.
1 Discussed at length here.