Any Old Iron

Life is all about choices. Understanding your choices, and acting on them in a reasoned and well-thought out manner is the key to a happy and fulfilled life. The corollary being, if you get the choice wrong and make a million Arsenal fans around the world yell “Oh, Bendtner!” simultaneously, then, well, pain and misery await1.

Which explains why I turned up to Iron And Wine’s gig at The Roundhouse nearly an hour late last night. You know, in the choice between watching the team I’ve supported for 33 years chase shadows, suffer possibly the more egregious refereeing decision I can remember, before very nearly staging the biggest upset until our Big Danish Galoot controlled the ball like my son and lost the chance to make a million fans go “Bendtner, you beauty, we don’t really think you’re shit at all”; or turning up on time to see a man play live that I’d seen just a few months back, it’s going to be the football every time.

What follows is, therefore, a somewhat shorter review than usual. Those of you at the back shouting “Thank God!”, shut up. Which brings me onto the problem of standing near the back. People just don’t shut up. There’s a constant chatter of people at the bar, and people who appear to have wandered into the street to witter to their friend. Deeply annoying, but the crowd looks a bit too tightly packed to bother getting closer to the front.

So, standing next to the mixing desk, I settle down to enjoy the rest of the show. I didn’t catch the names of the first few songs I heard, but what I did catch was that something wasn’t right. The sound, which you’d expect to be tip-top next to the mixing desk, was all over the shop. Vocals seemed to drift in and out, some instruments were far too loud, and the whole thing just sounded wrong. In-between song banter was so quiet as to be inaudible. Worse, the band themselves just didn’t seem to be playing that well, and the harmonies were all off.

“Tree By The River” came across as just ok, the lovely smoothness on-record replaced by a slightly damp fug. “House By The Sea” was reworked in a major key with horns, done jit-style – Bhundu Boys go folk! – which worked really rather well. “Peace Beneath The City” didn’t work so well. My notes from last night read “Oh bloody hell, get on with it. You’re not impressing no-one with this beatnik free-jazz kronkery.”. I’d been warned that Iron And Wine’s full band configuration can fall helplessly into jam-mode, and this was it in full effect. Thankfully it didn’t last too long.

Finally, up came “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me”. Still, the harmonies were not working well, and were just too quiet. They felt like a band not quite in tune with each other yet. And the long “Become….” coda just didn’t catch fire, despite the best efforts of the band.

Off went the band for the usual oh-please-sirs-and-ladies-bequeath-us-mere-serfs-more-of your-precious-musical-accomplishments2. And on they swan again, stripped down, acoustics and mandolins ahoy. A long chat with the crowd starts off with Sam saying ‘Thanks! Next time I won’t be sick!’.

Which at least explains the performance. Suprised by the enthusiastic thanks given by the crowd, Sam comments that last time he played live with a band in London, the crowd was less than happy shouting ‘Come back without the band!’. A wag behind me shouts ‘Come back without the band, again’. Calls of ‘Harsh!’ are met with another person shouting ‘He was right though’, to approving laughs.

And as if to prove the crowd right, they go and play ‘Naked As We Came’ with harmonies that worked, Sam’s voice bright and clear, song gracefully extended, and the stripped-down accompaniment sounding just fine and dandy. A beautiful song, played beautifully, and with that he was gone.

Here’s the rub. Sam Beam has gone from writing quiet, raw yet gentle acoustic numbers on his porch to huge, loud(er) epics with all sorts of gubbins going on. Mostly, the underlying songs have been strong enough to cope with all manner of stuff laid on top of them. But on this half-showing, they start to creak live, unable to withstand the pressure. When it’s just him (and one or two able fellows), he is truly marvellous. Maybe next time, Sam, hide your bandmates’ passports. Maybe he was really just not feeling well, unable to get a great performance from his new backing band, and other shows have been great.

Get well soon, Sam, and hope you come to see us again soon – full band or no. Next time, I’ll turn up on time. Sometimes those damn choices will get you either way.

1 Oh, ok, for “pain and misery” read “slight upset”. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that there are far more important things to life than football.

2 This isn’t a dig at Iron And Wine, by the way, just a dig at the whole rigmarole. I much prefer Broken Social Scene’s method.

MP3: Naked As We Came by Iron And Wine

MP3: Lovesong Of The Buzzard (Acoustic) by Iron and Wine

Buy “Kiss Each Other Clean” (CD/MP3)

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