Iron & Wine @ Birmingham Town Hall


In January 1970, so the story goes, my Dad went to see Led Zeppelin blow away the Birmingham Town Hall as they toured Led Zeppelin II ; 41 years later, a much different proposition is in store as Iron and Wine visit the same venue to play to a busy crowd in the grand and historic venue.

The stage was set then for Iron and Wine, Sam Beam to his mother, to play his brand of Americana-folk-pop to a eager audience – made up of at least 60% bearded folkies – and produce the studio quality performances that had come to bring such a high reputation. However, it turned out that the crowd were not in for a live rendition of the album versions, as Beam and his band stepped away from the more expected Iron and Wine live performance, branching out into exciting new territory.

The nights support act Daniel Martin Moore belongs to the Sub Pop roster (as Iron and Wine once did) and musically seemed to lie somewhere between Ryan Adams quieter, more ballad-y moments and the headline act. They played out their folk, country pop set tightly and were received well enough by an audience who couldn’t be described as warm, but were polite and hushed during the songs and applauded generously at the end.


Daniel Martin Moore departed the stage and this was the cue for a number of roadies to crowd the stage, busying themselves with an array of equipment, leaving a rather impressive looking stage setup which seemed to me to be a visual representation of the change in dynamic of Iron and Wine’s sound.

My first introduction to Sam Beam’s work was 2003’s The Sea and The Rhythm, a brilliant collection featuring mostly Beam’s heartfelt vocals and acoustic guitars. However, his more recent releases, particularly Kiss Each Other Clean – released in February this year – have produced a fuller sound, with more complex full-band compositions.


Sure enough, when Beam took to the stage, sporting his trademark fierce beard – he was followed by a 7 strong band. He addressed the crowd first, and, in what would’ve been unimaginable on earlier tours encouraged his fans to dance along. And then he let the music insist that the crowd do just that. Opening with ‘The Boy with a Coin’, the maraca shake of the drum beat, and the blue grass guitar riff sounded terrific.

A soulful, funky rendition of ‘Me and Lazarus’ came next and by the time the stage was soaked in red and purple light and they were halfway through the third song of the evening – a slow jazz version of ‘Free Until They Cut Me Down’ complete with echoed sustain of guitar and a screaming saxophone solo – it was clear that the audience were watching a accomplished and impressive live act.


As the set continued, Iron and Wine worked through a fairly even mix from the extensive body of work, perhaps swaying slightly toward their more recent album, but that can be expected so close to the records release. The consistently tight group shifted easily through a range of different sounds and genres, painting their back catalogue with soul, blues and jazz, they never strayed too far from the folk and country element which seem to root the songs.

‘Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog’) was almost a perfect microcosm of the set as the excellent musicianship allowed for easy hopping of musical styles – from the country, blue grass beginning to a moody breakdown, grounded around an electronic synth and augmented by a haunting oboe and a jazz guitar.

The bands flexibility was highlighted once more by an electronic reworking of ‘The Sea and The Rhythm’, as a minimal piano riff made room for a showcase of Beam’s rich, warm and intimate vocals; and accompanied by a female backing singer, the wonderful harmonies that had been perfect throughout.


Beam’s golden, rasping vocals, which sounded spot on despite him being on the “back end of a cold”, formed the base around which the ‘fake last song’ ‘Walking Far From Home’ was made to sound as epic, large and grand as the lyrics subject matter.

Then the full band departed, only for a slightly reduced lineup to return for a single song encore. The finale was ‘Naked as We Came’ and was definately in a more typical Iron and Wine style; a return to traditional instrumentation meant focus fell upon guitar and vocals as would have been the normal expectation of earlier Iron and Wine sets.


While the people in the crowd whose knowledge of Iron and Wine was based on the songs like ‘A Passing Afternoon’ or ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth” that saw the band courted by TV and film directors for their soundtracks probably left disappointed, fans of music certainly did not. They were treated to a performance by a group at the peak of their powers, effortlessly spanning genres, during tight and accomplished renditions that refreshed Iron and Wine’s discography. The mark of true live band, for me, is to deconstruct their own work and make an old song new, something that this impressive live act did with aplomb.

Earlier in the evening, Beam, who had been ever witty and entertaining between songs had asked when commenting on the stunning Town Hall’s beauty, received a muted response to the question “You come to lots of gigs here?” He suggested that the crowd “really should” and If every gig could be as impressive as this one, then they surely would.


Live photography courtesy of Will Claxton, check out more his work on flickr. More Iron and Wine photos are available on the hotcakes facebook page.


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