A lot goes into the psyche of Iron & Wine’s music. There’s the storytelling, the imagery, the poetry, the earnestness – oh God, the earnestness. Sam Beam has been the bearded bloke wielding an acoustic guitar since well before any of the current batch could even so much as grow facial hair – he knows his way around a tugged heartstring or two. If there’s one thing that comes across properly tonight inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre, however, it’s the lighter side. The backing band make their entrance first and set up the opening number before Beam theatrically sneaks onto stage, shooshing the crowd’s applause in the spirit of a pantomime villain creeping up behind the unsuspecting protagonist. A few songs later, during “Last Night,” Beam pretends to start crying during the final chorus – a meta acknowledgement of how sombre and self-serious his songwriting can come across as. Before too long, he’s cracking wise with audience members – teasing out an intro after he’s heckled to hurry up; or threatening to never come back to Sydney after an inebriated audience member calls out for “Put Your Back Into It,” a hit for fellow Opera House inhabitant Ice Cube.

It’s this looseness and easing of the tension, however, that allows for a greater connection to the music itself. In one instance, an audience member spontaneously calls out for deep-cut “Jesus, the Mexican Boy.” Beam obliges, resulting in one of the most beautiful performances of the entire set – just Beam, gently fingerpicking and crooning away, with a captive audience at pin-drop silence. All jokes aside, there’s a reason Beam has been able to comfortably fill out the room over two nights – and, by extension, done the same in the Concert Hal on his visit some four years prior. He’s an exceptional talent, enriched by a laconic drawl and a distinctive take on the genre. Furthermore, he’s bolstered by a truly wonderful backing ensemble – particularly in the case of the keyboardist and percussionist/drummer, whose talents also extend to providing stunning three-part harmony when the occasion calls for it. As back-handed a compliment it may seem, Iron & Wine absolutely falls into the category of music where one forgets how great it is. Not on account of it being unmemorable, but rather its subtle textures and dynamics – their emotional heft doesn’t resonate until you’re experiencing it in quick succession of one another, such is the case this evening.

“We like to bring the weather with us,” cracks Beam at one point – he’s alluding to the prop clouds that hang above the band on-stage from dangling wires. It’s more than that, though – Beam brings a private universe

Review – David James Young