Calexico with Iron and Wine's Sam Beam

Review: Calexico and Iron and Wine’s EFG Jazz Festival show is absorbing and sprinkled with genius

By Christopher Knowles
November 24 2019, 10.25

Calexico took to the Royal Festival Hall stage for Saturday’s EFG Jazz Festival show buoyed by the happy news that their new album Years to Burn has been nominated for not one but two Grammy awards.

At some moments, Calexico might dice with cliche: three chords, hand claps and lap steel topped with a stetson.

But their sumptuous sound truly does evoke vast American skies and the kind wholesomeness you’d hope to find in your favourite Texan bar.

Also, they can float from the country road into expansive jazz improvisation, which bears witness to the integrity that has won them so many deserved accolades.  

This concert showed the depth of the 14-year collaboration between Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam and Calexico.

Sam Beam’s voice and songwriting are fine qualities and his contributions sprinkle the genius on the generic. The highlight of this performance was the performance of Naked As We Came, which he and Joey Burns captured in a duet.

Joey Burns’ deft guitar lines complement Beam’s ballads, which is at first surprising.

It would seem that the tender fragility of Beam’s work might buckle under the business of such playing but this is far from the case. Burns adds a new and welcome brightness. The vocal blend between the two is absorbing and reflects the closeness of the artists.  

At this stage of his impressive career, Sam Beam exudes a calmness and understated confidence. After a momentary and minor slip he quipped: “I always wait until the quietest moments to fuck up.”

In truth, Sam Beam is a master of  the quietest moments; he draws a silence and anticipation from his audience that allows the ambience of the stage to resonate: quietly rattling snare, poised fingers preparing on strings and softly exhaling guitar amp. With this type of captivated audience Sam Beam reveals the intimate possibilities of great live music in the right venue. 

Despite the illustrious and celebrated company, the support act Lisa O’ Neill left such a lasting impression.

Her storytelling and poetic supposition instantly gripped the hall. Introducing her elegiac ode to Violet Gibson, she recounted the life of her subject who went to Rome in 1926 to assassinate Mussolini. Gibson’s bullet only skimmed the dictator’s nose and because of her crime she spent twenty nine years in an English asylum.

Introducing Blackbird, from her haunting record Heard a Long Gone Song, she mused: “I was wondering whether the birds can hear us sing.”

O’Neill’s singing has a cradling sonority that rises and sharpens as she moves to the edges of her range. Her indignant vibrato drives the lyricism of her songs at times recalling Edith Piaf.

To give context O’Neill joked: “I’m Irish, if that’s not obvious.” Her questioning of the limits of language and her commitment to the ’emotion’ of the voice point to a quintessentially Irish sensibility.

Before starting Elvis I Give You Irish Stew, she revealed how, in the conventional place of the Blessed Virgin, Elvis appeared to her with many questions.

In this quirky encounter with the King, O’Neill followed her grandmother’s wisdom ‘if you want an honest answer from a man, first of all feed him’.

With her respect for the tradition of the folk song and her post-modern irony she invokes the spirit of Irish Noir; I imagine her crooning in the shadows of a Martin McDonagh play. 

Lisa O’ Neill joined Calexico on stage for a rendition of All I Have To Do Is Dream. As a trio Joey Burns, Sam Beam and Lisa O’ Neill are mesmerising; O’ Neill’s wit, Beam’s poise and Burns’ introspection combine to create a memorable dynamic.

Their sombre and luxuriously soporific version of this classic shows the potential for a future collaboration on record. O’Neill’s expressive voice and her storytelling provoke and brim with conviction and emotion; she gave Royal Festival Hall the joy of stumbling unsuspecting upon things rare and precious.   

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