Sometimes, it’s the things that are the most familiar that catch you off guard. Sam Beam introduces tonight’s rendition of Jesca Hoop’s Hunting For My Dress as “the song that started this whole project” (Beam collaborated with Hoop on a reinterpretation of the song for her Undress album in 2014).
Tonight, the song threatens to collapse twice, as Beam and Hoop joke with each other. By this stage in the evening, the duo have thoroughly established a relaxed and candid mood, the performance frequently spurred on by their dry witted interactions as much as by the beautiful songs. Whilst they may be dressed with a degree of elegance, there is no hint of formality in the performance itself.
Whilst the excellent Love Letter For Fire album sometimes presents Beam and Hoop’s gently evocative songs fleshed out with lush arrangements, tonight finds them performing as an unadorned duo, without any further accompaniment. This is a challenge the pair are well equipped to meet. Beam remains a unique and compelling songwriter, having developed his own curious vernacular in lyric writing. He also plays guitar with agility and care, able to create a percussive groove at the same time as marking out a song’s harmony and form. He is alive to the range of sonic possibilities of his instrument, sometimes attacking the strings abrasively, at others using muting techniques to soften the sound or make it feel more rhythmic. It often feels as if his guitar is performing all the roles of an entire band. Hoop sometimes adds enthralling textures on electric guitar, but it’s her vocals that really make this collaboration work. Her versatility is remarkable, with a necessary ability to blend effortlessly with Beam when singing harmony lines, yet she can also become a strikingly forthright presence, emulate songbirds or imbue a melody with genuine depth of feeling.
The enthusiasm and commitment of the music is punctuated by bursts of mischievous between song banter. There’s a running gag about how Sam “can’t speak for Jesca”. The peak moment comes when he tries to explain the beauty of collaboration: “You see, this is a song I couldn’t have written by myself,” he says of the resplendent We Two Are A Moon, “but I can’t speak for Jesca” Jesca takes a slight pause before responding: “I could have written it by myself!” There are wonderful little moments like this threaded throughout the set, suggesting that Beam and Hoop are very much enjoying working together and developing their stagecraft.
In addition to material from Love Letter For Fire, Beam and Hoop each select a couple of favourites from the other’s work. Hoop picks Belated Promise Ring, a relative Iron And Wine obscurity, and provides softer, more vulnerable harmonies to Beam’s more forceful lead vocal, much more attacking than on the recorded version. More predictably, they also tackle the beguiling beauty of Resurrection Fern, with slight variations to the melody. It’s one of the evening’s undoubted highlights. Bravely, Beam picks an as yet unreleased Jesca Hoop song, the elegiac and nuanced Pegasi, that suggests Hoop’s next work will be essential.
The most memorable moments of the evening may well be the extraordinary cover versions. They bravely deconstruct Islands In The Stream (perhaps one of the most famous of male-female duo songs), turning in to something dark and brooding (Beam desribes it as “gothic”). For the final encore, they deftly harmonise Annie Lennox’s turbulent melodies for Love Is A Stranger. It has the occasional jarring moment, but almost works, delivering a surprisingly menacing conclusion to an otherwise relaxed and open performance.