How did Sam Beam, an artist initially known for his intimate, tender, hyper-literate narratives in song form, get to be the ringleader of this Appalachian soul revue? There are times when it appears even he is not so sure, such is the expression of sheer delight and surprise that beams (no pun intended) across his face whenever the three man horn section kicks in during this Iron And Wine performance.
Beam’s earlier songs had a peculiar, highly imaginative vocabulary that demanded total space and deliberate understatement to achieve its vulnerable grace. With his more recent recordings taking on an ever more expansive, arranged and meticulous hue, some of that extraordinary language and melancholy has been sacrificed. Perhaps some of the studio moments have been a little smothered by over-production – a little smooth when the songs still contain those dusty, rusty stories that need something rougher, or at least something with less refined edges.
In live performance, however, Beam’s unusual artistic trajectory is thoroughly vindicated, his extraordinary band cutting loose and hitting some remarkable, irresistible and occasionally volatile grooves, particularly on the material drawn from new album Ghost On Ghost. Singers and the Endless Song is punchy, insistent and memorable whilst Caught In The Briars veers from ecstatic, joyful chorus to freely improvised tempest. Low Light Buddy of Mine has dramatic peaks and falls, and a compelling sense of tension.
The band, with whom Beam has apparently only been playing “for a couple of weeks”, sound in control but also as if they are having the time of their lives, not least the all-dancing horn, physically mismatched horn section (the trumpet player is tall and gangly, whilst one of the saxophonists has to handle a baritone that is his equal in stature). Where once Beam’s music seemed eerily rustic, haunted and antiquated, this band brings an irreverent sense of joy and awe, and an obvious love for music-making that clearly resonates strongly with the audience.
Indeed, something quite magical has happened between Beam and his followers since his earlier visits to the UK. For sure, the numbers have grown (he is now able to play two concerts at the Barbican), but the response has also become uniquely rapturous. Nearly every song gets a prolonged and sincerely appreciative cheering that could not be described as anything other than fully deserved. Testament to this is his ability to omit some of his finest achievements (there’s no Trapeze Swinger tonight for example) and to treat his songs as malleable materials rather than untouchable finished articles. Whilst his concerts have long involved radical re-interpretations of his back catalogue, tonight everything sounds confident and assured, rather than tentative or experimental.
He draws liberally from his rich and diverse back catalogue, but often opting for surprising conoisseur’s selections rather than the obvious pickings. The lithe, groovy version of Belated Promise Ring (one of his best songs) is particularly warmly received, as is the full, expansive rendition of Tree By The River, bolstered by brass and strings. All the older material is refracted through a strange lens (not least the strange version of Passing Afternoons – more kinetic yet still haunting) but it is never rendered unrecognisable. Perhaps only the dub reggae-infused rewrite of Jezebel sounds in any way forced. Everything is rendered clear and brilliant by a superb, nuanced sound mix in which the various parts are all audible (right down to the separate harmony vocal lines), even when the arrangements are thick and multi-layered.
Beam is also skilled enough to vary the pace and texture of the show, the central acoustic set also providing its own affecting highlights. Beam’s lugubrious cover of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights extracts a pathos largely concealed in the original, whilst a requested Resurrection Fern survives Beam’s mistakes over the chords to remain one of this most emotive, beautiful songs. There’s also a sincere, heartfelt take on Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson’s Withered and Died, a song Beam professes to be the “saddest song I’ve ever heard”.
It all culminates with a vibrant, explosive take on Your Fake Name Is Good Enough, on which the band brings its free-wheeling energy and enthusiasm to boiling point. Even though it’s well after the scheduled end time for the show, this audience seem unconcerned with catching trains or returning home, their standing ovation bringing Beam back for one last solo performance of Naked As We Came. Where once Beam’s music sounded so exposed that this title might neatly summarise his entire oeuvre, it’s now a striking contrast with the soul and fire of the rest of his tremendous set.