More Live Gonzos, part 1: Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell

I titled my 2019 series of posts on live albums after Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzos, but not all of them actually were double albums. To start off this year’s batch, here’s one that is. Joni again, to no one’s surprise.

I began listening to Joni Mitchell in 2003. By 2005, I had every record she made in the 1970s, and a couple each from the sixties and eighties, aided by the fact that her entire back catalogue was in the four-CDs-for-£20 section of my local record shop (Fives in Leigh-on-Sea; now I live in London and don’t have a local record shop. Go figure). Shadows and Light was one of the last I got round to. It didn’t seem to have a great rep compared to Miles of Aisles, and it is a very different beast.

Recorded at an outdoor show at the County Bowl, Santa Barbara, in 1979, Shadows and Light is Joni at the tail end of her jazz phase, when her music, at least on record, was the most abstruse it would get; she had moved away from verse-chorus structures around the time of For the Roses, turning instead to stanzaic form, often with no repeated melodic phrases within a stanza.

By the time of the 1979 tour, Mingus, her collaboration with jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, had been out a few months, and some of its players feature in the band she toured with: Jaco Pastorius is on bass, Don Alias on drums and percussion. Also along for the tour were Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on piano and Michael Brecker on saxophone. Even compared to the LA Express guys, this constituted serious, heavy-duty jazz talent. These guys exist in a different world to bozos like me, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to put aside my awe at their collective technique to actually listen to what they play and ask myself, does this work for me as a listener?

And that has always been my chief problem with Shadows and Light. I’ve never found a way to listen to it non-intellectually. I have never trusted my lukewarm reaction to it, so have kept coming back to it as if it must just be that I’ve not put the work in. I’m the kind of person who can very easily turn something fun like listening to music into homework, but Shadows and Light has always felt like homework. I chose it to be one of this series of live-album posts to see if it would click this time.

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After a brief intro (a verse of Shadows and Light, sung with the vocal group the Persuasions, intercut by snippets of dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause – “you can’t be idealistic all your life” – and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers singing I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent), the album* begins with In France They Kiss on Main Street. As I wrote here, when I first heard the studio recording of this song, Skunk Baxter’s fizzily disorted lead guitar struck me as horribly cheesy and inappopriate, so this version with Metheny’s chorused guitar not gesturing at all towards the grammar of rock music does have a certain advantage, one reinforced by Don Alias’s drumming. His relaxed, funky feel in the choruses, when he switches to the ride and drops the 16ths he plays in the verses, allows the song to stretch out like a cat awaking from a snooze. If I’m honest, Pastorius’s bass is busy for my taste (we’ll come back to this) and I’m not big on Mitchell’s electric guitar tone (she took to playing a George Benson Ibanez jazz box in the late 1970s, dropping her trusty acoustic), but these are gripes about Joni’s music in the late seventies generally, not something to hold against this particular reading of In France They Kiss on Main Street, which opens the album creditably.

Lyric-led and atmospheric, Edith & the Kingpin (like Main Street, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns) translates better to the stage than you might expect. The whole band, including Jaco, is restrained, and as a unit they’re tasteful and unobtrusive. Next comes Coyote, probably my favourite track from Hejira. Alias (on congas for this one; he was such a brilliant percussionist, even better than he was behind a traps kit, and he was great there too) is excellent on this one, and Mitchell’s long, slowly uncoiling verses weave their magic as surely as they do on the Hejira recording and the spellbinding performance she gave at the Last Waltz.

Next is Mitchell’s adaptation of Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, who played with Basie and Billie Holliday. The song is one of the great accomplishments of the Mingus album, and on the album recording Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on spine-tingling form on electric piano and soprano sax. Mays does a fine, if less prominent, job on stage at Santa Barbara, but Brecker demonstrates some of what I’m less keen on about his playing: an overbearing tone that says gameshow rather than late-night bar, and an over-eagerness to go for that crowd-pleasing high note or legato run. But again, it’s impressive to get such a composition across at a daytime outdoor show at all.

Jaco’s Solo (that’s the track name, hence the cap S) is, as you’d expect, virtuosic in the extreme. He runs though every technique of which a bass player might avail themselves, inventing some along the way. Did any bass player use a digital delay to provide a loop for themselves to solo over before Pastorius? This was 1979, before there was such a thing as a digital delay pedal, and I believe that Pastorius was using a rackmount system, so if he wasn’t the first, he was certainly among the pioneers.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines features possibly the most difficult vocal Mitchell ever wrote for herself. Although she sometimes sounds a little hoarse during the gig (the band were five weeks into a 6-week tour, with few nights off), she clears every bar the tune sets her. The thing is, there’s an oddly funky lope from Peter Erskine’s drums on the studio recording, which is a bit lost on this recording. Alias begins the song and Mitchell sings two verses accompanied only by drums but Alias isn’t replicating Erskine’s beat (he plays pattering, seemingly random snare patterns, rather than two and four with ornamentations as Erskine did). Maybe the song evolved in arrangement over the tour, but I’d have liked to have heard it played straighter.

Spare, atmospheric readings of two highlights from Hejira follow: Amelia and the title track. As I said, I’m not a big fan of Michael Brecker’s tone when playing tenor, but he was in restrained form on Hejira, adding subdued soprano sax. Alias and Pastorius are good one too. Amelia is even sparser, mostly just Mitchell and her guitar, with a little support from Pat Metheny, playing with a volume pedal (or the volume knob on his guitar) in emulation of the lovely, atmospheric touches that Larry Carlton added to the studio recording. For me, it’s the album’s single best moment. Just stunning.

In between Amelia and Hejira comes Metheny’s solo showcase (titled Pat’s Solo on the record sleeve). The strongest passage is the lyrical playing in the central section of the solo (when Mays’ keyboard shifts from providing a drone to adding chordal movement). Until that moment, Metheny plays with some cool rhythmic ideas, but the solo feels to me a little lacking in focus.

Side two begins with Black Crow, Don Alias adding a pattering 16th-note hi-hat and bossa nova-style sidestick to Mitchell’s strummed chords. Mays’ piano works well, as does Metheny’s guitar, but I again find myself yearning for a subtler sax player than Michael Brecker. Pastorius’s bass runs at the end of the song are jaw-dropping.

It’s followed by Alias’s conga solo – easily my favourite of the three featured solos on the record; it sounds like he has four hands – which leads into Dreamland, from Don Juan’s Restless Daughter. For all his virtuosity, Alias can’t quite compensate for the absence of Airto Moreira’s surdo, Alex Acuna’s shakers and Manolo Badrena’s coffee cans. Without those extra layers of percussion, and without Chaka Khan’s wordless backing vocals, Dreamland just isn’t the same experience. It’s good, but it’s markedly less good than the studio recording. A bit of a shame.

Free Man in Paris is probably the album’s breeziest moment, but… OK, lets tackle this head on at last. The problem I have with Jaco Pastorius as a bassist (and, I know, we’re talking about one of the most technically accomplished players of all time, and who am I to judge?) is simply how busy he was. Of course, not every bass line has to just lock in with the kick drum and do nothing more than that, but playing that way at least some of the time allows more space for other musicians to do things too.

Pastorius’s constantly moving lines step all over Mitchell’s vocal on this one, and he and Alias play competing fills at the same time as if they’re not listening to each other. If you compare it with the much more disciplined studio version, on which Wilton Felder sits out entirely for the into and half the first verse, you can hear what I’m grousing about. Mitchell can phrase and have that phrasing be effective as she’s not always competing with a babble of 8th and 16th notes from the bass guitar. For me, I guess, Pastorius’s bass playing is the tax I have to pay to listen to Joni Mitchell from Hejira to Mingus and on Shadows and Light, much of which is magisterially good.

Furry Sings the Blues is a case in point. It’s a wonderful song, a meditation on what had become of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, since the heyday of WC Handy and bluesmen like Furry Lewis himself, “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his wooden leg removed”. It’s a lyric-heavy song, and is recited as much as sung, but the atmosphere it creates is compelling and totally singular, and the text is so acute. Bringing something that casts such a delicate spell to the stage is a tall order, but (unlike at the Last Waltz), Mitchell pulls it off completely. Metheny’s volume-pedal guitar is chilling, and Alias plays spare, sympathetic accompaniment on snare, toms and cymbals. Pastorius, Brecker and Mays sit it out, leaving space for Mitchell to fully inhabit the vocal. It’s up there with Amelia as one of the best things on the album.

At this point, the a cappella vocal group the Persuasions take the stage and join the band for a version of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love, played with Alias and Brecker. It’s good fun, and probably was even more fun for the audience who were actually there. It’s then a hard gear change into Shadows and Light, the philosophical centrepiece of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The original has an uncanny aspect to it, created by massed overdubs of Mitchell’s voice and Arp synthesiser. This version is a little warmer, and maybe a little less spooky, but still strong.

I’m not sure how closely the album tracklisting mirrors the set list of the show, but next up the band return for the unlikeliest crowdpleaser in history, God Must Be a Boogie Man, which has the audience clapping and singing along the first time Jaco plays the refrain melody. It’s a more grounded, swinging take on the song than the floating, almost free-form album cut, but I found myself enjoying it as much as the album recording

Finally, Mitchell gives the audience what you suspect they always wanted from the show: an old song from her folkie days, played fairly straight. It’s a version of Woodstock, arranged for guitar. Mitchell’s readings of Woodstock always tended to be more foreboding than, say, CSNY’s more stomping take on the song, but even by her own standards this one is hugely ambivalent about the possibility of getting back to the garden; Mitchell even adds the kicker “to some semblance of a garden” the final time she sings the chorus, as if that’s the very best that can be hoped for. Like Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light, it has the spook. It’s a troubling but hugely impressive end to the album.

*

After having lived with this record all week, listening to most of the songs upwards of three times, I’m still unsure about it. For all the talent on stage (and there was so much of it), this is just not my favourite Joni Mitchell sound. While the LA Express could be as corny as a talk-show host’s house band, they were exuberant and warm. There’s something clinical about the sound of these guys (the Roland Jazz Chorus amps that Metheny and Mitchell use may be part of it – transistor-based amps designed for jazz guitarists to be run without any distortion at all high volumes, they can be very cold sounding), and Jaco is, well, Jaco. Perhaps Mitchell was happy for him to play as expansively as he did. I feel, as I so often do when listening to Hejira, Don Juan’s and Mingus, that it’s a shame he didn’t lay back more, let the music be driven by the vocal. Brecker, likewise, I only really like in his most restrained moments; the bigger he played, the more oily his tone became.

I wanted Shadows and Light to really click for me this time, and I’m disappointed it still hasn’t. The best of it (Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light) is so good that I’m sure I’ll return to it again in a couple of years to see whether my reaction has changed. But this is a game I’ve been playing for 15 years now. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be.

MItchell & Metheny
Mitchell & Metheny

So long, 2019

And farewell to the decade, too. It’s been quite the ride for me. I hope everyone who reads this has made it to the end of the year unscathed.

I’m still finding it hard after the election results here to muster any optimism about our country’s short-term future, and the longer-term picture is apocalyptic. Yet, what choice do we have but to carry on in our daily lives? And eight years (nearly) since I started it, doing this remains a big part of my life. In the next few weeks, I’ll probably do what I did at the start of last year, and think of a few themed posts to give structure to my output. Maybe more live records, maybe something else (debut albums, comebacks by reformed bands – a few ideas come to mind).

In the meantime, to see out the year, here are some links to my favourite pieces from this year, including my first proper crack at film reviewing (The Kindergarten Teacher) and a couple of TV things.

Take care now, and see you in 2020.

Live – Donny Hathaway

Never Any Clapton: Hello – Lionel Richie

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

The Kindergarten Teacher

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can’t Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

Things We Lost in the Fire – The Masters Lost in 2008’s Universal Backlot Fire

Mix Techniques

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Alternate Tunings

 

 

Happy birthday, old friend

Apologies. Still can’t confront what happened last week. Still, this piece is a lot less whimsical than it may seem.

Twenty years ago today, on a cold Saturday just before Christmas, I took the train up London with a schoolfriend. We got off at Limehouse, changed to the DLR, got off at Shadwell, changed for the East London Line, as it was then called, and got off at Wapping.

I’d never been to Wapping before, and its cobbled streets and warehouses delighted me. This was London like I’d never seen it. So was Shadwell, come to that, and little did I know that less than three years later I’d be living there.

We were heading for the Acoustic Centre. I’d been left some money by my granddad, who’d died earlier in the year, and I’d decided to use it on something that I could keep, something that would be worth spending money on. After all, £500 was more money than I’d ever had in my life up to that point, and I wanted to use it wisely.

I had an idea that I might go for a Takamine. I’d heard of them, seen them being played by musicians in bands on TV, and I’d seen them advertised in music magazines. I knew Takamine made very high-end stuff, but also guitars that were more affordable. They seemed a good place to start.

When I got there, I said my budget was £400-ish (maybe I felt a bit sheepish about spending all that money on a guitar when I was still a comparative novice) but the guy in the shop didn’t have anything at that kind of price point. He did, though, have an EN10 priced a fair bit higher that he said he could probably let go for £500 at a push. At that point, the EN10 and EN10C (the same thing, but the latter had a cutaway) was a popular model that you’d actually see pro and semi-pro musicians using, so as a 17-year-old I could hardly have been more impressed by it. It looked great – matt finish, simple decoration around the soundhole, red cedar top, mahogany back and side – and it sounded great too. I loved it.

Long story short, I still play that EN10. It’s what I’m talking about if I refer to “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, assuming Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. 90% of all the songs I’ve ever written were written on this instrument. It fits my hands, it sounds like me. More than that, it’s a part of me.

In the years since I bought it, I’ve sometimes thought about potentially getting a vintage Martin or Gibson, but I never have. I can’t really imagine ever playing another acoustic guitar. It wouldn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t sound the same. Yeah, good tone is 90% in the hands of the player, but what about that last 10%? I’ve put in twenty years on this guitar, and it’s aged and matured with me, mellowing and letting go, to the point where its sound is fundamentally and inextricably part of my sound. If I were to buy a vintage guitar, someone else would have done that work, and it could never be mine in quite the same way.

This probably sounds ridiculously sentimental to anyone who’s not a musician, but to me a good guitar is so much more than an assemblage of wood and metal. There’s a part of me in it. It’s not a tool, it’s a partner.

I’ve got other guitars I’ve had a long time (Seagull S12+, purchased in 2001; Fender USA Stratocaster, bought in 2007), but there’s something about your first. Happy birthday, old friend.

003aMe and my guitar, always in the same mood, as James Taylor put it. On stage at the Harrison in London, a couple of years ago.

 

 

Sue – Frazier Chorus

Well, another general election result in the UK I can’t bring myself to think about, let alone write cogently about. So, instead, here’s another piece about a little-known 4AD record. This time we’re looking at Sue, the debut album by the Frazier Chorus.

We can file this under: “Not for everyone”.

Frazier Chorus were a four-piece band when they released Sue in 1989. While that initial line-up contained a flautist (Kate Holmes, later of Technique and Client) and clarinet player (no bassist, drummer or guitarist), the band was essentially a vehicle for the songs and voice of Tim Freeman (older brother of actor Martin Freeman) and each record the band released featured a different line-up.

Freeman’s whispered sprechgesang and the band’s rather rinky-dink programmed beats and synths, decorated with touches of flute and clarinet, make the Pet Shop Boys sound like AC/DC. They sound a little like a synth-pop version of Belle & Sebastian, five years or so before the fact, and a similar bleakly cynical outlook to Jarvis Cocker in Freeman’s observational lyrics.

There’s some good stuff here. Storm, with its insistent synth cellos, is really effective; Sloppy Heart, which was Ivo Watts-Russell’s favourite and I gather was the song that got the band signed, is a neat indie-pop song; opener Dream Kitchen sets out Freeman’s musical and lyrical stall within 35 seconds (the lines “your life’s too good to be true; I think I’ll ruin it for you” was when I felt like I cottoned on to what Freeman was up to).

But some of the songs – usually the ones that gesture towards jazz or contemporaneous sophisti-pop – exist in a strange place where the combination of synths and acoustic instruments feels bland rather than exciting; the intro of 40 Winks sounds like the theme of a forgotten ITV sitcom from the mid-1980s, and Sugar High’s perky keyboard and faux-marimba is a similar low point. Over the course of 11 songs, Freeman’s limited voice becomes a bit of a problem too.

The best three or four songs on Sue are definitely worth a listen, but I’m not sure the recipe works at album length. I wonder where Ivo was coming from with Frazier Chorus. They feel like an odd fit for 4AD at the time, when the label’s most vital bands were the Pixies and the Throwing Muses, and the Cocteau Twins were just about to hit their peak with Heaven or Las Vegas. Perhaps he wanted just wanted to sign something small scale and intimate. A curio, then.

 

The lay of the land, 6 December 2019

Seven years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

Well, hi there. Another year gone by! The big news from this year is that Mel and I are engaged, with a date set for next September. I’m already looking forward to the day itself, and being surrounded by everyone who is closest to us. Tonight we’ve been talking about the most important thing: what music we’re going to have.

It’s a sign of my continuing good health that we’re doing this; I genuinely wouldn’t have asked her unless I was sure I’d be sticking around in the long term. As it is, I’m as likely to be here in 30, 40 or 50 years time as anyone else, and while I’ll probably always be a bit nervous every time I have an unexplained ache or pain anywhere in my upper body, I remain fit, healthy, happy and lucky to be under the watchful eye of a great team at St Thomas’s Hospital, who check me and my trusty pacemaker out a couple of times a year.

Looking ahead to next year, I’m not planning to wind the blog down yet. Some of you may have noticed I’ve picked up the pace in terms of posts. That was part of a conscious strategy to try to attract more readers as bBack in April, kind of out of blue, I lost around 45% of my numbers, more or less overnight, and have spent all year trying to figure out why, claw them back and/or attract new ones. Posting more frequently was part of that effort. I’ll continue to post more frequently if I can. December is a busy time, but I’ll pick it up again in January if I continue to struggle time-wise, as I have for the last week. I like doing this too much to stop, although I did consider it when I found that suddenly I’d lost nearly half of my readers. Would it be crass to ask you to follow me on Twitter if you enjoy reading my blatherings, and maybe retweet any posts you particularly like?

I’ll be back in a day or two, with another of those lost 4AD albums posts. In the meantime, my very best to you. Have a great holiday season, vote wisely (if you’re in the UK) and wash your hands often; it’s germy out there! Speak soon.

Heidi Berry

I’ve been reading Martin Aston’s history of the record label 4AD, Facing the Other Way, which in its admirable dedication to telling the whole story of the label focuses almost as intently on artists that are now rather obscure and forgotten as it does on the more notable successes. I’m going to listen to some of them and give a quick, from-the-hip appraisal, all written in one lunchtime.

First up, Heidi Berry’s self-titled album from 1993, her second on the 4AD. I’ve not heard any other records by her, and my only reference tool is the discogs listing that has given me the names of the players. Although, there was one that I could identify from his first note…

In 1993, not many artists were making records this obviously indebted to British folk rock from the 1970s. But then, few artists have been as obviously influenced by British folk rock from the 1970s as Heidi Berry.

Occasionally, this is to the record’s detriment. On For the Rose, a co-write with her regular bass player Laurence O’Keefe, Danny Thompson turns up to play double bass on what is a virtual rewrite of John Martyn’s Solid Air. I imagine the great man was a little nonplussed. The problem is, it does rather raise the question of whether Berry’s music can claim an identity of its own. I’m not sure I’d call For the Rose the album’s weakest moment, but it is the one that makes the record easiest to dismiss if you’re familiar with Martyn and the records of his contemporaries.

Elsewhere, there are fewer problems. Berry has an attractive, serious-sounding voice: a little quivery, like Natalie Merchant’s, but warm, agile and true in pitch. She sings strong harmonies with herself, with a good sense of which lines to harmonise and which to leave bare. The musicianship is very good throughout, with particular strong work by drummer Jon Brookes and pianist/string arranger Christopher Berry, Heidi’s brother. Hugh Jones’s production and mix is largely warm and intimate, with the right kind of woodiness to the drum and acoustic guitar sounds, which is vital for doing this stuff well.

Highlights for me include Little Fox, which has a lovely string arrangement, the Moon and the Sun, which is in sprightly triple-time and sounds a little more indie-pop than the rest of the record, Darling Companion (not the Lovin’ Spoonful song) and the opener Mercury, which sets out the album’s stall as one focused on relationships, but with frequent nature imagery, which I guess is the lingua franca of non-traditional folk music.

Later on, the record gets a little more ambient/dream poppy, with Follow having something of a Talk Talk feel, and Ariel sounding very much like the Cocteau Twins (did they have a song called Ariel? Surely they did) – while competently done, it’s a strange choice for a record that otherwise sounds like its been hewed from the soil.

I like this record. It’s very… likeable. It only really comes a cropper when it wears its influences a little too obviously on its sleeve, as on For the Rose. Well worth checking out if British folk rock is your thing.

R-389682-1153496860.jpeg

 

Iron and Wine & Calexico @ the Royal Festival Hall, 23 November

I’ve gotten a lot from the recent records by both artists, so was really excited to see them play live together, especially after hearing their new collaborative album Years to Burn, which came out in the spring, and rating it pretty highly.

The set began with Follow the Water, which may be my favourite track from the album. The band immediately swung into gear, and if Joey Burns hit a bad note on lead guitar and Sam Beam’s vocal was a little quiet as the sound guys worked out the level, it was no big.

Next was He Lays in the Reins, with Burns taking lead vocal. I guess this was so Beam could cover the harmony, which lies above the range of the melody. It kind of makes you wish that they’d recorded the song as a duet originally, but In the Reins was much more an Iron and Wine EP with Calexico backing him than a 50/50 collaboration.

Next was Father Mountain, on which the Beam/Burns harmonies again sounded great, and Glimpse, a Calexico song.

The centrepiece of Years to Burn is The Bitter Suite, which is made up of two slow songs bookending a jam featuring some great Miles Davis-style trumpet from Jacob Valenzuela. Other than the trumpet not sounding as echoey and cool as it does on the recording, the band handled the demanding 9-minute piece well. Valenzuela’s lead vocal on Pajaro was mournful and moving, and John Convertino powered through band through Evil Eye, the instrumental section, from behind his drum kit. Tennessee Train, the slow, mournful Sam Beam song that ends the suite, is spine-tingling on record, but live demonstrated what would be my one gripe about the show.

Beam has a particular type of voice: soft, sad and consistent in timbre across his range. He began as an Elliott Smith-style whisperer and evolved into a real singer from there. But he’s not a singer who can adapt the timbre of his voice and sing louder and more open throatedly without his tone becoming hard and brittle. At times on Saturday I felt he over-decorated the melodies of certain songs and sang more strident, arena-sized melodies that didn’t quite suit his voice or the moment. On a song other than Tennessee Train, it might not have mattered, but it did slightly mar one of his best songs.

Next was a really good cover of Lucinda Williams’s I Lost It, and Midnight Sun, which I liked more than its studio recording, but it was maybe a weaker moment in the set in terms of the writing.

Sixteen, Maybe Less was an odd one. Beam botched the lyrics one line in and laughed it off while carrying on the song rather than starting again. The band slid in after the first verse and I soon forgot about Beam’s early flub, but he also forgot lyrics in the second set of verses and instead began talk-singing the verse. Now, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t still a little misty at the end of the song, but as with Tennessee Train, some of Beam’s performance choices took me out of a song I’d expected simply to get lost in.

No problems arose from Flores y Tamales, though. The Spanish-language, cumbia-inflected song from Calexico’s 2018 album The Thread that Keeps Us, sung by Valenzuela, was a real set highlight, as was the short sequence of songs that Beam and Burns sung as a duo.

They began with the old Iron and Wine favourite Naked As We Came, a vehicle for Beam’s deft fingerpicking and the harmonies the pair have perfected (see video above for a radio session). They followed that up with a pair of covers: Chris Gaffney’s Frank’s Tavern, which Calexico have been playing for years and which fits them like a glove (they brought Valenzuela back to the stage to join in on trumpet, and it was great), and the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream, for which they brought back opener Lisa O’Neill. Personally, I didn’t feel that O’Neill’s rough, gnarled voice was a brilliant fit for such a gentle song and would rather have heard Beam sing lead. It was a nice inclusive gesture though.

The band came back on and went into the bluesy Red Dust from In the Reins, on which bass player Sebastian Steinberg played a long double bass solo. Steinberg is an excellent player, but it went on a few minutes too long for my liking, given that it was basically unaccompanied and with no harmonic context. Next was a nice cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses and Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin, on which the band nodded at the arrangement of the recording while taking it somewhere different and cool. Definitely a set highlight.

The final three songs of the set were an absolutely lovely version of Years to Burn, which had all the weary delicacy of the studio recording, a fun version of History of Lovers (never liked the nursery rhyme-ness of this song all that much, but enjoyed it on the night) and What Heaven’s Left, the opening track of Years to Burn, which worked well as a set closer – nicely celebratory, with a cool outro jam featuring lots of John Convertino’s drum fills and Valenzuela’s trumpet.  The encore, short and sweet, was In Your Own Time, which they stripped back compared to the album recording, losing some of the barroom swagger. Still, it was a good song to end on, and the natural, inevitable closer since it hadn’t appeared in the main set.

I’ve seen Calexico a few times now, and they’re never less than impressive. Their collective musicianship is just so good. Convertino is a joy, and Burns has developed into a really effective singer and focal point for the band. Beam was a little more hit and miss. Possibly it was an end-of-tour thing, but I think I’d have enjoyed a couple of the songs more if he’d played them a little straighter, singing the melodies as written and keeping his voice in the dynamic range where it sounds best. Nevertheless, having not seen an iron and Wine gig yet, I’d not hesitate to go next time he’s over here with his band.

A final word about Rob Burger – I’ve not really mentioned his contributions on keyboards and steel guitar, but he was absolutely crucial to the success of the gig. The guy is completely gifted and brilliant.