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A Sub Pop Night Out

James Mercer, Rosie Thomas, Sam Jayne and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine)
Knitting Factory
New York City
Feb. 1, 2003

“There’s some amazing shit coming up and I don’t use that term lightly,” gushed a giddy Sam Jayne after a bare-bones cover of the Kinks’ “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains.” Jayne, who also fronts Olympia freak-out rockers Love as Laughter, was the first of a traveling caravan of Sub Pop artists to perform at New York City’s Knitting Factory earlier this month. The evening’s sole female performer, Rosie Thomas, opened the show, cracking jokes in-between short and engaging melodies about falling asleep in the back seat of a car and wanting to fly away on paper airplanes. Thomas’ heartland vocals had surprising depth, belying her pixie-like speaking voice and helium-tinged giggles. Unfortunately for the audience, the Sub Pop van had been towed earlier that day, leaving Thomas not only without her box of merch, but her neck brace as well–a prop, she explained, used during her comedy routine. The antsy crowd tried to be on its best behavior, but chatted away furiously during Jayne and Thomas’ tepid sets.

Perhaps it was only the intimidating Grizzly Adams beard, but when Sam Beam took the stage, his sparse, twangy guitar picking reverberated throughout the otherwise silent club. Beam, who records under the alias Iron and Wine, used only a banjo and double-tracked vocals for his surprisingly full-bodied debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Live, Beam’s vocals take on a sandpapery quality (on the album he comes off a lot like Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, slight lisp and all), his voice gently breaking every so often. Mixing up old songs and new ones from The Creek like “The Rooster Moans” and “Upward Over the Mountain,” Beam played it spare, gently thudding the guitar’s hollow body to keep time.

The evening’s headliner, Shins’ frontman James Mercer, strapped on a harmonica and launched headfirst into “Caring Is Creepy,” the first song off his band’s heralded 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World. Fans busted out with the first dancing of the night, and Mercer responded with a little two-step of his own. Keeping the repartee to a minimum, Mercer coolly ran through the Shins’ repertoire:”Know Your Onion!” received a huge ovation; “The Weird Divide” worked surprisingly well as a one-person effort; “Girl Inform Me” inspired rhythmic clapping. When Sam Beam appeared with crib sheet in hand, fans anticipated something great was about to happen: Joining forces on the Shins’ “New Slang,” Mercer and Beam’s voices bobbed up and down like two tangled balloons heading skyward, an intoxicating end to the evening.