Music Features

Iron & Wine, Bon Iver: Live at Sheffield Leadmill

For a variety of reasons - work commitments, poor motivation, The Wire - I haven’t been to many gigs this year. I’m not counting or anything so I can't give you hard figures, but I know I haven’t made it out to see a band since the Efterklang show in March, which is pretty weak for someone who spends most of their free time thinking, talking and writing about music. I’d been eyeing this one up for a while, though, and I was determined not to miss out. I even bought tickets for a change.

When this date was first announced a few months ago, I had been most enthusiastic about seeing Iron & Wine. I’m a long time fan of Sam Beam’s work - Our Endless Numbered Days was my favourite record of 2004 - and I wrote a pretty glowing review of his latest album for a print mag called Rock ‘n’ Reel late last year. But over the past months, while my interest in The Shepherd’s Dog has cooled, my appreciation and respect for Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago has spiralled into the realm of obsession. As a consequence, as I approached the bright lights of the Leadmill on Wednesday night I found myself consumed by thoughts of the support act rather than the headliner - “will it be a full band show or just as acoustic set?”, “will he play Skinny Love?” etc.

Little did I know it, but I was setting myself up for a huge disappointment: Bon Iver was only on stage for a measly 25 minutes to warm the crowd up for what turned out to be an Iron & Wine marathon. I felt robbed, even though I had no right to - I would have loved this arrangement two months ago - and I’m sure it coloured my experience of the evening.

But maybe there's more to it.

Bon Iver’s five songs sounded fresh and exciting, with their sparse yet intriguing instrumentation. Justin Vernon was joined by two other musicians, an additional guitarist and a percussionist, and they managed to recreate the sound of For Emma with impressive accuracy. Skinny Love was probably the highlight for me, although opener Flume was fantastic too, but as Vernon and his collaborators wrapped the set up with a rousing rendition of Creature Fear I couldn’t help but think about the songs they hadn’t had time to play and how great an encore would have been.

In stark contrast, Iron & Wine seemed to play for hours. I didn’t time their set - and I must admit I punctuated it with a number of trips to the bar and one telephone conversation - but it was certainly too long, even for someone with a healthy working knowledge and appreciation of Sam Beam’s catalogue.

There were some refreshing versions of old favourites like Cinder and Smoke and the new songs, particularly Pagan Angel and A Borrowed Car, sounded sufficiently ‘big’, but the whole set just smacked of over-indulgence. As the evening progressed, the wholesome big band sound began to dwarf Beam’s gentle vocal, and arguably 90% of the songs outstayed their welcome by at least a few minutes.

The set had started out strongly with a handful of beautiful, sparsely arranged acoustic tracks performed by Beam and his sister, Sarah; I couldn’t help but feel that Beam would have been wise to slot a few similar numbers into the middle of his set, if only to break up the monotony of it all. Sadly, he didn’t, and as I caught myself yawning for the fiftieth time during a stretch of seemingly endless guitar noodling, I couldn’t help but think of Bon Iver and what might have been if the promoters had arranged a more democratic split in the performance times.