Calexico and Iron & Wine w/ Lisa O’Neill | Bridgewater Hall | Manchester

This Wednesday night Calexico and Iron & Wine performed to a near sold-out crowd at Manchester’s Bridgewater hall in support of their new collaboration, Years to Burn. The joined bands had been nominated that morning for Grammy’s in Best American Roots Performance for ‘Father Mountain’ and Best Americana Album for Years to Burn and the six-member band took the stage smiling. Lisa O’Neill, the musician and songwriter from Cavan Ireland, opened the show.

Though O’Neill looked somewhat alone on the stage (alone with a four-string banjo), she quickly captivated the audience with her incredible range, musicianship, and blend of narrative songwriting and poetry for which she is rightly celebrated and known for. O’Neill is very much a storyteller and, in her short but impactful set, sang ‘Violet Gibson’–a song about the Irish woman who shot Mussolini in the nose, ‘Rock the Machine’– a devastating song about the collapse of dock work in Ireland in the 60s, and a cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’. The set was short but and sweet and I am looking forward to her return to Manchester on 11 February at YES.

Calexico and Iron & Wine opened the night with ‘Follow the Water’ and we were introduced to the joint band’s members: Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino on guitars and drums, and fellow band members Robert Burger on keys, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and Jacob Valenzuela playing trumpet. ‘Follow the Water’ opens with the lines ‘I always said I love you still, everything broken thing washes away’. The sentiment there seems to echo the one Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam captured when he said of Years to Burn ‘Let’s not talk like teenagers about love, desire, pain, ‘cause we’re not teenagers. And that’s not a bad thing.’ And, as someone who first listened to Iron & Wine in their late teens and lost touch with his output over the years, it wasn’t hard to hear how his sound had matured.

Calexico and Iron & Wine first collaborated 14 years ago on the critically acclaimed 7-track EP, In the Reins, and the time they’ve spent playing together showed. These were six musicians, deep, as they say, in the pocket and the night was punctuated by breathtaking solos on the stand-up bass from Steinberg, the accordion by Burger, and trumpet by Valenzuela. They had an ambitious set-list to move through (near 20 songs), but at some point in the night the individual songs seemed to give way to a complex and atmospheric sonic landscape—a blend of folk, country, blues, and Tejano. Nowhere was this perhaps better showcased than in ‘The Bitter Suite (Pajaro / Evil Eye / Tennessee Train) a 3-part song that shifts and sprawls over its 8-minute play time and showed just how integrated Calexico and Iron & Wine are on this new album with a long instrumental jam giving way to a song that would have fit neatly on almost any of Beam’s Iron & Wine albums.

These are consummate musicians and they took the audience through a wide range of songs from albums new, old, and, as they said, everything in between. Midway through the show 4 of the band members left the stage and Sam Beam and Joey Burns to fend for themselves. They played two songs in a recurring element of the tour where each choose an Iron & Wine and Calexico song for the other to play: in this case ‘Naked As We Came’ and ‘Bisbee Blues’. I had managed to tune my attention away from the man mysteriously eating a large bag of nuts to my left, but it was at this point in the show when a man with a shock of grey-white hair started yelling at Beam to turn his mic up. He seemed unreasonably angry (I could hear just fine). The crowd started to shush him quiet, but Beam and Burns diffused the moment with more of the gentle banter the man apparently couldn’t hear. The man quieted. The night resumed.

Lisa O’Neill will play with Calexico and Iron & Wine on the remaining dates of their UK tour—this Saturday night in London—before the latter heads back to Chicago for the North American leg of the tour. It felt rare to see not one but two bands play together who are in such fine form, in support of such a good album, and clearly enjoying every moment of it. Bridgewater Hall, as ever, remains a sort of preposterously good place acoustically to see any show. With any luck, and the recent Grammy nods, we won’t have to wait another 14 years to hear new music from Calexico and Iron & Wine.

by Chad Campbell

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