Iron & Wine + Old Man River

[11 October 2004]

By Nick Gunn

Iron & Wine

Maybe it’s just a hangover from watching that Carpenters telemovie one too many times as a kid, but I still get a little thrill from seeing a sister behind the kit. The rhythm section is an extremely important part of the Old Man River sound, with rolling beats carrying the eerie guitar meanderings of Ohad Rein, the singer/songwriter behind Old Man River. The tension in his music is built not by going all out, but rather by holding back and hinting at what might be. Vocals are kept to a bare minimum, leaving room for the sparse combination of synth, guitars and drums to create an understated and quite dark journey for the very laid-back crowd.

Adding to this relaxed atmosphere was the venue itself, which was later described by Iron & Wine front man Sam Beam as “kooky”. &Newtown is the old Newtown RSL after one hell of a makeover, with dim red-tinged lighting over a mainly seated audience providing a sultry jazz-lounge or club atmosphere. While the space itself is visually stunning, the acoustics leave a little to be desired, with the rumble of falling pool balls and the crash of empty bottles frequently punctuating some of the quieter moments. At times this just added to the intimate feel of the gig, but at other times it proved excruciating.

One such moment was during Iron & Wine’s achingly poignant rendition of “Sea and the Rhythm”, which was definitely the highlight of the show for me. It must have been the highlight for at least a few others as well, because moments after it ended a spiky-haired guy walked up to the merchandise stand and started grilling the operator about the title of the song just played. After conferring with an unseen friend, he returned and bought ALL of the CDs with his credit card. So he was either really into the music, or his girlfriend was and he just really wanted to get laid; I know which theory I’m backing. I’ve never seen so many eyes-closed-feeling-the-music types at a gig before, which is not to be cynical. It’s simply that kind of music, very tender, very melodic, and very, very intimate. Beam’s strong-yet-sweet voice harmonises beautifully with that of his sister, Sara, and the banjo and slide guitar of…O.K., so I have no idea. His name may well be Patrick, but to be honest it was kind of hard to hear Beam’s softly spoken stage banter, especially considering that we weren’t sitting all that far from the stage. From song to song a simple change in lighting would cause Beam’s co-performers to appear and disappear as needed, lending them a ghostly demeanour which left Beam acutely alone at times and overjoyed with his sudden accompaniment at others.

Iron & Wine frequently draw comparisons with Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy outfit, but apart from the family ties I think that’s a bit lazy. Sure, both play blues and country through a modern alterna-folk filter, but the similarities stop there. Whereas Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music relies on the dissonance and angularity that lies between Oldham’s voice and the more traditional instrumentation, Iron & Wine thrive on harmony and a rolling continuity that lends their music a hypnotic quality. The flu was beginning to take its toll on me that night, but at times this music made me forget all about it, leaving me staring off into middle distance as the harmonies and gently plucked guitars washed over me. Sure, it could also have been the copious amounts of codeine-laced cough syrup, but I prefer my version of events.

Songs like “Jesus the Mexican Boy”, “Naked As We Came” and “Bird Stealing Bread” blended sweet, folksy melody into sweet, folksy melody, and if I have one criticism of Iron & Wine it’s that many of their songs have a very similar sound. However, seeing as that sound is such a good one they are more than forgiven. Iron & Wine borrow many of their riffs and phrasing from the rich history of American music, but always mark them with their highly distinctive style. They remain a testament to the power of a man, his guitar, his beard (and what a beard! This is where the Will Oldham comparisons really should come into play), his sister and his buddy with a banjo and some gently kick-ass slide guitar.

And did I mention harmonies?

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