543843_10151472808920962_273787285_n – THE OPERA HOUSE, MANCHESTER –

Everything about this gig was luxurious, from the opulent setting of the grand Manchester Opera House, through the twelve musicians on stage, to the two hour, 22 song running time of the set, it was an old school occasion, the likes of which we don’t see much any more. Sam Beam, commonly known as Iron & Wine, brought the latest incarnation of his band to our fair city and showed the kids how it’s done.

It’s rare to see such a big touring band these days, they must be expensive, but Iron & Wine take to the stage with a three piece string section, a three piece brass section, a bassist, a pianist and three backing singers, as well as Beam, centre stage with a guitar, making twelve bodies on stage in total. The crowd is almost silent in anticipation, which Beam responds to by shhhhhhh-ing us, immediately breaking the tension, setting the tone for a brilliant, relaxed evening of exceptional music. The band launch into ‘The Desert Babbler’ from new album Ghost on Ghost, and it’s wonderful; the guys playing saxophone (x2) and trumpet dance their way through the song when not playing, as Beam’s smooth as carmel voice fills the theatre with the tale of being far away from home. The first half of this career spanning set is focussed on Beam’s songs that sound great with a full band, including a majestic ‘Kingdom of Animals’ and ‘Baby Centre Stage’, with songs pulled from albums right across the bands history, not just the most recent one.

But it’s when everyone leaves the stage except for Beam and the string section that things start to get really special. A fluffed attempt teases the crowd, as Beam has to retune his guitar, but when they start again we realise it’s not a tease: they’re really playing ‘Such Great Heights’, the sublime Postal Service cover, with just a three piece string section. It may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Then the string section departs and Beam is left alone, telling us he’s going to do ‘Iron & Wine buffet style’ – we can shout for songs we want to hear and he will play them. Wow. Unfortunately he doesn’t hear my holler for ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Resurrection Fern’, but he plays ‘The Trapeze Swinger’, ‘Big Burned Hand’ and ‘Waves of Galveston’ completely solo with just his guitar, to stunning crowd silencing effect. It’s incredible to see an act do this, especially someone with such a big back catalogue and such reverent fans, and it’s brilliant.

The band rejoin Beam for the final stretch, a superb ‘Caught in The Briars’ which descends into a free-jazz freakout, before being pulled back into ‘Sundown (Back in the Briars)’ seamlessly, the string section easing us out of the brass noise into the embrace of the sundown. I’m not sure I’ve seen a group of happier musicians on stage ever, they all look like they’re having a blast. It’s not self indulgent though, the audience are lapping it up too. Finishing on an epic ‘Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me’, the band leave the stage to a standing ovation. Beam returns alone for a single encore song, ‘Lion’s Mane’ from 2002’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, sending us on our way with a reminder of just how special a concert can be. Wonderful stuff.