Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Shaggy Dog Story

Iron and Wine/Jeremy Warmsley @ The Spitz

With some hasty last minute arranging, one of last week’s most fruitful evenings proved to be a trip to the imminently departing Spitz club for a masterclass in the art of songwriting. Before we get to that though, it’s worth having a mini-rant at The Spitz’s unfortunate fate. The venue already has its own (genuinely excellent) restaurant downstairs, but the upstairs space has now been sold to new owners, promising, with an extraordinary lack of logic, another restaurant. Does East London not have enough fashionable eateries? Why replace an outstanding restaurant and open-minded music venue with another restaurant? The Spitz’s promoters hope to find a new East London location for the venue. I sincerely hope they succeed – as it’s one of the few places in London to programme such a wide variety of quality music - jazz, rock, blues, and the more challenging and adventurous breed of singer-songwriter can all be found during the course of any one week there.

Iron and Wine and Jeremy Warmsley are now labelmates at the excellent Transgressive label (although, lovely as this music sounds, one has to wonder how ‘transgressive’ it really is). I’ve not seen Jeremy perform to such a sizeable audience before, and he immediately commands attention. Audiences are rarely this quiet and appreciative for support acts – it’s clear that Jeremy’s idiosyncratic style and genuine musicality are captivating qualities. There’s a little more melodrama in this short set than I can remember from the most recent performances I’ve seen, and as a solo artist Jeremy continues to refuse, admirably, to treat his songs as static objects. With an appealing lack of reverence, he precedes ‘Dirty Blue Jeans’ with an unfamiliar introduction, before delivering the song itself in a particularly savage and untamed version. ‘Five Verses’ continues to be the most endearing of the songs from ‘The Art of Fiction’, and he performs it playfully and affectionately. Things get more serious when he shifts to the piano, for an intense reading of ‘I Knew Her Face Was A Lie’, complete with ornate piano flourishes. Best of all tonight is a new-ish song, which might possibly be called ‘Dancing With The Enemy’. Jeremy won’t thank me for finding the chorus slightly reminiscent of Frankie Valli’s ‘Oh What A Night’, but the song pulled off a neat trick in combining its insistent hook with enigmatic and intriguing lyrics. The work-in-progress new album promises to push him to another level – hopefully commercial success will follow.

Sam Beam seems like an unassuming chap – arriving onstage sheepishly, stroking his lengthy mane of hair, and waiting for an AWOL Sound Engineer to return and fade out the background music. This is very much a low key show – just Beam with his acoustic guitar, and a set comprised of an intriguing balance of early songs and new material. He struggles with his complex tunings throughout, and is appealing in his sincere humility. Luckily, his songs speak for themselves – rich as they are in an extraordinarily intricate linguistic tapestry. Beam clearly loves language – and the minimal musical accompaniments he uses to embellish his otherworldly folk discourses make it necessary to completely drown in his unique world. His more rhythmic, blues-tinged material gets the edge, although the audience are most rapturous at his reworked, wonderfully laconic version of ‘A History of Lovers’ from the recent collaboration with Calexico. Of the new material, new single ‘Boy With A Coin’ sounds bright and insistent, whilst the beautiful ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ may be the most soulful and affecting song he has yet written. Beam’s soft, understated voice somehow speaks volumes – he has a natural, unforced delivery which conveys sensitivity and emotion without admonishing his audience in any way. He is becoming a significant treasure.

Feist/Noah and The Whale @ The Scala

From hardly visiting the UK at all, Leslie Feist seems to have become a regular fixture in light of the success of her wonderful album ‘The Reminder’. This gig at the Scala felt appropriately intimate, given the sophisticated chamber-pop sound she crafts so expertly.

Supporting her tonight (and also supporting Broken Social Scene when they premier Kevin Drew’s ‘Spirit If’ next month) are the quite wonderful Noah and the Whale. It’s really gratifying that this band are getting such a push – their folk narratives are wispy and difficult to pigeonhole, although singer Charlie Fink may well have taken some indirect lessons from Conor Oberst for his vocal stylings. Mercifully, he’s not as overbearing or self-important as Oberst, and whilst he spent too much time staring at the floor last time I saw Noah and the Whale perform, he seems more concerned with connecting with the audience on this occasion. Performing tonight without Charlie’s drumming brother Doug, the band undoubtedly miss their skeletal clatter, but the songs still have unusual and compelling charm, a strange combination of surrealist invention, endearing naivety and spellbinding wordplay. Tom Hobden’s confident violin playing demonstrates both conviction and a genuine enthusiasm for the American folk language. It’s difficult to predict whether this band’s distinctive appeal will find a wide audience, but they are one of the more intriguing and hopeful prospects British pop music has thrown up in recent years.

‘The Reminder’ is so emotionally alive - honest and personal yet universal in its shared wisdom and insight - that it’s almost surprising to find Feist so personable and humorous an onstage presence. Entertainment is clearly not beneath her, as she gets the crowd to join in their own messy but joyous harmony. The set doesn’t vary too much from her previous London show at Shepherd’s Bush, so there isn’t too much to add to my review of that performance. She opens with a lush version of ‘One Morning’, and adds a couple of unfamiliar covers of songs by Canadian songwriters she admires (the Sarah Harmer song is particularly touching), but the focus remains very much on the refined, compelling atmospherics of ‘The Reminder’. Feist is both elegant and commanding onstage, and her voice is rapturous, passionate and utterly compelling.

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