"How's everybody doing?", asks Sam Beam, the man who performs under the name Iron & Wine. Given that much of the sold-out audience is clearly here to see him tonight as much as the headliner, Rosie Thomas, the response is strikingly affirmative. "Oh yeah?", he grins, teasingly, like he's about to change that. After all, Iron & Wine's recent second album, Our Endless Numbered Days, is a series of backporch meditations on how life just slips on by until the big cheerio: just the thing for a balmy spring night.
Actually, it really is the thing. The album is one of 2004's near-secret treasures coasting carefully over any portentousness thanks to Beam's Nick Drake-ish whisper and the slightest of instrumentation: carefully plucked acoustic guitar and banjo and percussion that sounds like twigs tapping by a campfire.
What gives this existential introspection presence is its intimacy, coupled with lyrics that put a soft spin on almost Will Oldham-esque physical imagery. And he captures it live, too. His voice is more full-bodied than expected, but then so is he, with his full beard (the mark of a committed US folkie) and muscles suggesting that he has a day job cutting down trees (actually, he teaches cinematography). Even when he does draw back to a whisper, though, the crowd hang on every word. Mercifully, the gig is free of the usual hum of bar-side babble.
Indeed, Beam and his stage companion, "Patrick", are quietly commanding presences. Patrick's beard may only be a baby brother to Beam's, but he plays a mean banjo, tussling nicely with the main man on "Free Until They Cut Me Down". On some songs, they trade rippling notes on acoustic guitars; on others, it's Beam alone, to particularly wondrous effect on "Naked as We Came". A song about two lovers contemplating which of them will go first, it manages to be undemonstrative and almost unbearably moving at once, with lyrics that really are to die for: "One of us will die inside these arms/ Eyes wide open, naked as we came."
This mix of directness with a warm and sad-eyed delivery allows Beam to find affirmation in his subject matter without being glib. His last two songs take it home, too. When he sings, "Is it getting heavy?" on a languid porch-pop cover of the swooning "Waitin' for Superman" by The Flaming Lips, the answer is: "Well, no, not if you put it like that." And when he adds: "It never ends the way we had it planned," in "Muddy Hymnal" at the close of the set, the point is beautifully made. There's hope, faith and love in these here tunes, and that's something.