Live Music + Gig Reviews

Iron And Wine + Bon Iver @ Leadmill, Sheffield

16 May 2008

The lot of the support act is usually not a happy one. Forced to play to a handful of disinterested people, while still coping with hoards of newly arrived punters streaming straight past them and heading to the bar.

This isn’t the case with Bon Iver though, even though they come on stage at the unusually early time of 7.45pm. Indeed, it’s positively crowded around the Leadmill stage, and there seems an air of expectancy when the fragile opening chords of Flume ring out.

This buzz is no doubt due, in large part, to the justifiably rave reviews that Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has been receiving. The backstory of Justin Vernon locking himself away in a remote log cabin to recover from a particularly bad case of a broken heart was compelling enough, but that was nothing compared to the stark beauty of the music within.

The album is perfectly recreated live – the addition of Sean Carey on drums and guitarist Mike Noyce banish any fears that this could be a frail, acoustic performance. Vernon’s falsetto is captivating, bringing to mind names such as Jeff Buckley and Antony Hegarty, and there’s a certain other-wordly quality to his music.

With all three band members sat down, this wasn’t a set to be moshing along to, but Skinny Love had the Leadmill audience slowly nodding their collective head and drifting away with the blissful melody. Live, Bon Iver are very much a team effort as well – with Carey in particular pounding away at his drum kit at the cacophonous climax of The Wolves, which at times brought to mind Sigur Ros.

Finishing with Creature Fear, the only quibble about Bon Iver’s set was its brevity. This is understandable for a support act, but it’s a fair guess that most of the audience tonight would have liked to have seen a lot more of the wistful trio.

For a band so often pigeonholed as alt-country or folk, it’s staggering how many different genres Iron & Wine cross. There’s certainly some wistful folky strumming from Sam Beam tonight, but there’s also a hell of a lot of blues, some prog-rock, and even some boogie-woogie thrown in.

Strolling onto stage with his sister Sarah, Beam opens with a trio of planitive acoustic numbers, with Jezebel from 2005’s Woman King EP a particular highlight. The interplay of the Beam siblings bring to mind Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, and the vocal stylings are suitably haunting.

After a few moments, Sam and Sarah were augmented by five extra musicians, including a pedal steel player, pianist, and xylophone player. This was the cue to recreate the winsome, rolling flavour of last year’s excellent The Shepherd’s Dog album.

The only trouble was that, live at least, Iron & Wine are prone to moments of self-indulgence. So, although the songs themselves were wonderful, the band had a tendency to stretch them out beyond their natural lifespan, adding all manner of noodling guitar solos. It also didn’t help that some songs easily segued into each other, giving the set a very ‘samey’ sort of feeling.

This isn’t to denigrate the performance in the slightest – indeed, at times it was hypnotic to see a band so obviously in tune with each other twist and turn through all number of instrumental jams. Yet the blistering heat of the Leadmill meant that the 90 minute set did seem to go by a bit slowly.

However, songs like Wolves, Pagan’s Angel And A Borrowed Car and Carosel were beautifully played, although it was a shame that we didn’t get to hear any of Beam’s now famous cover versions, including possibly his most well-known moment, his rendition of The Postal Service‘s Such Great Heights.

For an encore, we were back to the acoustic wistful folk, with Beam joined by sister Sara and a pedal steel player. It was a suitably genteel ending for a remarkably civil gig – maybe, truth be told, a bit too civil all in all.

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