Iron & Wine

Mike Mantin 28/10/2007

If there's one venue in Bristol that springs to mind as being perfectly suited to Iron & Wine, it's the converted church St George's Hall. Large but intimate, with acoustics good enough for a gentle folk song to stretch right to the back, it's a perfect setting for the gentle, restrained but beautiful show we're in for. Sam Beam, the impeccably-bearded man behind it all, creates one of the most pleasantly relaxed gig experiences I've ever seen, appearing calm but passionate about the music he's making. He only occasionally speaks to the audience to jokingly welcome them to church on a Sunday night and tell them to shhh, an acknowledgement of the fact they're silent and awestruck, even when nothing's happening.

His latest album, 'The Shepherd's Dog', was a very welcome change in direction, moving away from the sparse instrumentation of his first two albums in favour of a full-band setup. As such, tonight there are electric guitarists, a violinist and a hugely talented drummer amongst others, and Beam frequently turns to face them, not out of shyness but to co-ordinate the soothing, jazz-influenced jams. Though ocassionally overlong, it's refreshing to hear an act associated with softly-plucked acoustic guitars collaborating with other great musicians, taking his songs to new places.

As expected when we find out it won't just be one man and a clapped-out guitar and maybe even a harmonica, the set is focused on material from 'The Shepherd's Dog' and, extended jams aside, the band are faithful to the sounds of the record, nailing the chiming guitars of 'Carousel' and rhythms of single 'Boy With A Coin'. Plus it's worth coming just to hear Sam Beam's voice, a soft but powerful southern drawl which glides over the music, never trying to drown it out, always moving you.

If there's one complaint to be made, it's the Dylan-at-Newport argument that, while the band add a whole new dimension to the sound, it would have been nice to have seen just a couple more instances of Beam on his own, as the settings and quiet audience are so suite to it. Understandably he's probably sick of 'Naked As We Came' and almost certainly wants to distance himself from his cover of 'Such Great Heights', but when he's playing solo on the first half of heartbreaking last song 'Flightless Bird, American Mouth', it's enthralling. Still, that's hardly a problem: tonight, Sam Beam and his band make it clear that he is a gifted songwriter at the top of his game.