By Nick Owen
As the first lines of Rabbit Will Run were launched from the most renowned beard of the alt-folk world, it was evident that Iron & Wine’s low-fi troubadour of old has moved on to grander designs. The days of Sam Beam the lone songsmith are long gone, and in his place the Corn Exchange witnessed a man re-born in favour of wailing saxophones, down and dirty synths, and the Fleetwood Mac harmony.
Judging by the dropped jaws and wide eyes of many in the crowd, the visceral backing of Beam’s streamlined seven-piece seemed to come as a shock to those expecting the lonesome and dreamy wanderings of early Iron & Wine. Since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, the band has been moving into uncharted territory, leaning further in that direction with this year’s Kiss Each Other Clean which produced some fairly divisive songs. Live, however, they make utter sense.
The jagged guitars of Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me galloped as though the band were channeling Malian blues-warriors Tinariwen, and the clipped, sporadic howls of saxophone on Me and Lazarus could have come from a lost Steely Dan reel circa-1972. Both are questionable on record, but bouncing around the Corn Exchange the songs transformed, leaving the crowd defenceless to a bit of hip wiggling.
Nursing the tail end of a cold, the pastoral lexicons inimical to Beam still sounded as hushed and wistful as ever on early songs like He Lays in the Reins, whilst the resounding tenderness of Naked as We Came doubtlessly caused a few lumps in throats, myself included.
It was the masterful re-imaginings of songs like Carousel and Lion’s Mane that made the night. Very rarely do wholesale reworkings of repertoire cornerstones go down well but, dare I say it, most sounded better than the originals. As Beam announced the end of the show, a drawn-out groan of disapproval echoed from the crowd, to which he replied: “Y’all sound like my kids when I tell them it’s time for bed”. And with that, the band began the devilishly eerie Free Until They Cut Me Down, a song drenched in Southern despair. A dark note to end on, but of course, a Southern gentleman must tell it like it is.