Review: Iron & Wine at the Melbourne Recital Centre

1 June 2018

Iron & Wine come out into a concert hall filled with pensioners, arts administrators wearing Gorman and people who just really love the Recital Centre. I’m not saying it’s not beautiful, just that my mum and I (sitting in our separate rows) are more used to mud and folk festivals than this. But I guess that’s what you get being one of the biggest folkie, Bible Belt stars in the world—playing twice in one night.

Sam Beam himself seems kind of apprehensive—not-quite obstructed, but a little weirded out by our patient, Anglican church-pew silence. The chairs are comfy, but every time there’s a halfhearted audience “Woo!” for the first half-an-hour or so he has a chuckle. Woos give me strength. I mean it was the late-afternoon session and when the golden stage-lights hit fishing-wire and cotton-bud clouds just so you do drift away. Keep ’em coming. I feed off woos. 

Augustine Henry’s review in The Age of the later show that evening calls the low-lights the way he quirks up the melody: ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ and ‘About a Bruise’ are quickly “rendered as quirky cacophonies in the worst tradition of My Friend the Chocolate Cake.” I grew up playing both David Bridie and Beam poorly on an Aldi guitar. My plus-one mum tended to agree with Henry, asking again and again why “couldn’t he just stick to the melody!” I’m still not so sure. There were these great pink lights on the ill-fitting pants of the man himself performing the lines “And when the morning came / I was ashamed / Only now it seems so silly” in total silence, and suddenly my thumbnails were up my nose holding me together and breaking my septum.

I guess in some ways, the question becomes: how many times can a human man sing ‘Such Great Heights’ before God smites him down? A lot of Beam’s more recent work seems to have lost this fear of God that he once had in favour of a seasonal agnosticism. Or at least—and I might be projecting—his lyrics still carry the same emotional valences of fear and loving but their metaphors slip into a steadier symbolic rhythm of clichés, trees, snow, the same specific birds. He starts singing around the lines and I can’t quite feel my aunt and I watching Garden State in the back room with a red birthday balloon over the light-fitting anymore.

These moments of—almost prophetic-feeling loss or distance from half the songs he’s performing—are highlighted by the strength of the band. I would name them, but I’ve struggled to pin them down online. The drummer moves like Carrie Brownstein at her sexiest: playing spoons on a bare leg or pulling up a series of bells (like garlic cloves or chillis on a string) you momentarily forget the woman next to you clicking on her phone. One thigh gleams in the blue light and she smiles, curving into the Cheshire Cat.

The double bass player gets into it in a way only bassist men of a certain age seem to: his long white ponytail shakes out behind him and every time they walk on or off stage he has to hold his arms out—a dinosaur in theatre blacks performing for children. I want him to find a heart-shaped chocolate behind my ear. The cellist (music stand, reverb pedals, “a ream of paper and a telephone”) seems dropped in from a symphony orchestra just to play low, fuzzy beats and create a soundscape which at times does fall into place in a way I haven’t felt Iron & Wine’s electronica do since The Shepard Dog. The woman on the keyboard sings so sweetly, hammering her hands like she’s in front of friends. At one point she lets loose, running up and down our spines until everybody breaks out of their inertia and finally cheers.

Our beardy prophet-guy Beam still stands tall though, and I don’t really know where to find their names. If I had a copy of the most recent album it would be on one of the inside flaps but I don’t. The official tour Instagram consists largely of close-ups of Beam’s face: gorgeous, veiny, hairline receding, large as life and twice as bony. There’s a meme going around I similarly can’t find that says something along the lines of: “Why do we complain about the movies? Is it not enough to just sit in a dark room and stare at a giant, beautiful face anymore?” Beam’s face comes out at all angles and he doesn’t look anything like the boy we used to know. Earlier that Wednesday, before the show, I watched comedian Ben Volchok do his bit where he walks out—ponytail out, beard cascading—and is Jesus. He loves everyone, he loves you, he loves us all—except for one randomly chosen member of the audience.

It’s a cute skit, but my mum left the Iron & Wine concert feeling profoundly un-loved. There are moments of discomfort, where the fact that none of the other band members’ names are listed when you buy your ticket becomes a little too resonant. Beam chuckles like Jim Carrey and it all starts to unravel. But then he’ll dip into the melody for just long enough to make you feel like your sons have set fire to the chicken coop at sunset. And on that burning hand I was stuck sitting in my seat wiping away tears and snot. Whatever floats your boat.

While singing ‘Pagan Angel & A Borrowed Car’ Beam forgets the words—like Joni Mitchell in the mid-2000s humming along to ‘Both Sides Now’ on Youtube. He chuckles, pats his wine glass without taking a sip, and just keeps pushing through. The music cycles around him and nobody in the audience sings along.


EDIT: My mum would like the record to show that she “didn’t feel profoundly unloved, just a little saddened by my own desire to hear his lines soar where they still do in my head.” 

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