Iron & Wine
Johnny FlynnEdit this event
Tonight, I am pleased to be seated. Pleased to be relaxing in my red velvet armchair, beer in one hand and the palm of the other acting as a head rest to keep this lulled sense of relaxedness within the realm of social consciousness. Without it I would probably fold, doubled over into the foot well of the tipsy couple making out next to me, causing an uninvited ménage à trois, sending small-scale scandal across level one of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
We arrive to the folksy / bluesy / country sound of Johnny Flynn. It’s a bit like walking into a Nashville backroom bar. He mixes bittersweet cello with banjo twangs and blues riffs (courtesy of resonator guitar) into songs such as 'Eyeless in Holloway' delivering a well-crafted performance brimming with instrumentation contributed greatly by backing band The Sussex Wit. However, when the fiddle is broken out, I keep expecting to see a washboard follow – and that’s a little too much to handle.
So, here I am sat on my ‘LEVEL 1 UNRESERVED’ seat like a king looking down at the ‘lumpenproletariat’ crowd, as if sipping cocktails (well, okay Grolsch Premium Pilsner) in my controlled environment sporting Christian Lacroix animal fur. I know from experience that an Iron & Wine show is the sort best taken sitting down. Those below, those less fortunate, hold the ripped stubs of ‘STALLS STANDING’ tickets. They are in for a long slog, I think to myself. They’ll be using one another; friends, lovers and innocent bystanders to prop themselves up soon enough as those casual folksy noodlings weave their way straight through to the subconscious.
When Sam Beam arrives onstage, ever the polite talkative chap, he quickly bypasses the awkward phatic pleasantries (tonight it’s the interesting enquiry "Where are your costumes?" - because it’s Halloween, see). Gliding gently into opener ‘Lovesong For The Buzzard’ we hear the first delightful echoes of Paul Niehaus’s pedal steel. Beam has amassed quite a backing band here. Members of Calexico and Califone stand, alongside some other equally established musicians, but it’s debatable whether Beam really requires all eight of them. Yes, they are all put to good use on ‘Peace Beneath The City’ with Benny Massarella’s electric sitar and ex-Wilco Leroy Bach’s piano coming to the fore. Same applies on ‘Peace Beneath The City’ where each members subtle contribution fits perfectly with Beam’s sister, Sarah, providing particularly effective vocal harmonies. However, it’s overkill on new album opener ‘Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car’ where it all looses its thread. It’s a case of too many cooks. On the older, more traditional acoustic tracks, these new live arrangements discard some of their subtle magic. Only 'Sodom, South Georgia' retains its customary acoustic guitar, even gaining a little extra magic thanks, largely, to good ol’ sis, Sarah.
However, this extensive backing band come into their own on a re-jig of ‘Evening On The Ground (Lilith's Song)’ where they sound like a ‘70s South Californian jam band providing the evening soundtrack in a Solana Beach watering hole following a day of sunshine and good vibes. From level one it’s not quite the self-indulgent jam session the waning throng downstairs appear to believe it to be. But as the rest of the band leave the stage for Beam’s hollow body electric and Niehaus’s sweet, sweet pedal steel to assume centre position, the first bars of album standout ‘Carousel’ begin. The gig transforms like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Like a flower blossoming as the warm spring sunshine beams. A beautiful stripped version of 'Upward Over The Mountain' resurfaces halfway through with renewed vigour thanks to a touch of violin. Members of the audience can be heard “shh”-ing and couples clutching one another tightly for an extended ‘The Sea And The Rhythm’; just subtle guitar, pedal steel and accordion backed by delicate vocal harmonies. It finishes not a moment too soon.
When the band return I feel renewed. As they speed through the percussive ‘The Woman King’, making way for ‘Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)’ they morph into dub-style jam that brims with ‘riddim’. It’s varied, interesting and even educating. But the steel is back to send shivers down the spine on ‘Resurrection Fern’. I can no longer battle with these heavy eyelids. I question whether my mate has slipped something in my beer halfway through. I’m so relaxed that for a brief moment I share the shoulder of the woman sitting next to me before she twigs and alerts her boyfriend, who doesn’t seem to care. He’s too busy entwined in whatever is floating through this air.
The finale, the equally glorious ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ is a perfect round off to both the new album and now this evening. I’m happy. I’m ready to float home on my magic carpet. But this expectant crowd, who by now have picked up and dusted themselves off, require an encore. Kind of glad they do, as it’s Sam, Paul and Sarah who return for a stripped ‘He Lays In The Reins’. Tonight, three most certainly is not a crowd.
Photo: Mark Kirby
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