San Francisco Bathhouse
March 15 | Reviewed by Marcus McShane

ALTHOUGH I only bought The Shepherd’s Dog (Iron & Wine’s latest album) a few days ago I’ve had Our Endless Numbered Days for a long time, and I spent a good two months last year obsessing over it. Knowing how late most San Francisco Bathhouse shows start I didn’t turn up until after ten, and so only had twenty minutes of the standing-around-looking-for-a-place-to-sit before Sam Beam came onstage and picked up his guitar, looking just as scruffy and hairy as fine guitarists should. He looks very much like a young Will Oldham. And the music is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing how many rich sounds can be made with two voices, an acoustic guitar, and an effects pedal.

Iron & Wine have an element of simple grace that’s distinctly sweet-sad and Southern-US. There’s a sense of Liveoaks and still humid nights in the hushed vocals and warm perfectly-executed chords. The crowd pay an almost religious attention to the first six or seven songs, which are sung by Beam, accompanied by another vocalist for the harmonies. I haven’t heard this sort of perfect silence given to a performer since Joanna Newsom played here last year. Someone makes the mistake of trying to order a drink halfway through ‘Cinder and Smoke’ and gets thoroughly shushed.

To my surprise Iron & Wine are very similar both live and recorded. I think perhaps because their first two albums feel as if they’ve been laid down on a four-track in an empty room in an old house in Georgia. There is very little sense of studio production, so what you get from Iron & Wine live is almost exactly what you get from their albums.

I’m not as sold on The Shepherd’s Dog as I am on the first two albums, but it’s still an incredible piece of work. It’s much more upbeat, but still very beautiful. I perhaps like it less because I’m less used to it than their earlier work. Ask me again in a month. For the songs off The Shepard’s Dog a drummer and bass get added to the ensemble, a little of the hushed mood is broken, and people start dancing and heading for the bar again.

After the bow there’s a solid four or five minutes of clapping and foot-stomping despite no sign of anyone coming back onstage. But the crowd are determined, and not one person leaves. In the end Beam re-enters the stage looking a little abashed and explains that they hadn’t prepared an encore, as they hadn’t needed one so far on this tour. But he then accompanies himself on guitar for ‘Naked as We Came’, getting a laugh from the audience when he fumbles a key change and stops to explain that he hasn’t played this for a while before starting again. Along with ‘Sodom, South Georgia’, it’s the best song of the night.