Sam Beam’s biggest UK show to date presented the shy Iron And Wine front man with something of a conundrum. His audience were, from the off, hanging on his every word, but he didn’t really know what to say to them. All those people. Scary, really.
So, mumbling through a beard luxuriant enough to thatch the venerable Shepherd’s Bush Empire’s roof, he half-heartedly alluded to Hallowe’en. The venue was emphatically not in thrall to All Saints Day – not a pumpkin or pointy hat to be seen. The audience, standing in couples in the stalls below, shuffled. In amongst the beard and flowing locks, Beam’s eyes gazed at his shoes.
But with his wispy voice and his sizeable band’s subtle playing he was soon able to weave spells all of his own, with tracks from recent album The Shepherd’s Dog creating a blissful atmosphere. Backing him were an upright piano, double bass, drums, two percussionists, backing vocals and fiddle and pedal steel. The latter, combined with male-female vocal duetting from Beam and his sister Sarah, called Mojave 3 to mind more than once.
Oldie Lovesong For The Buzzard started the set which to these ears was at its most memorable with new tracks. The Boy With A Coin was a thing of subtle beauty. The album’s title track showcased the band’s intricate performance abilities – and rarely have so many people playing together been so quiet.
Earlier tracks of a more rabble-rousy, uptempo country bent seem to be developed from their recordings, largely laid down by Beam on his own. Plenty of the audience know them. Beam looks bashful at the applause, almost as if he doesn’t understand why anyone would clap him. His recent collaborations with Calexico should be reason enough for him to believe in his own abilities. Maybe he’s just a modest man.
There are forays into west African rhythms and stripped down moments of acoustic guitar and pedal steel harmonising. Speaker buzz puts paid to the sublime Carousel’s ability to woo, yet it’s still by some way the most memorable track of the set so far. Only set closer Flightless Bird, American Mouth trumps it as a real moment.
By the time he plays encore He Lays In The Reins a bed is called for – this is music to snuggle into a duvet with, the aural equivalent of a warming malty nightcap. The only bore at the gig’s end is the prospect of a journey home.