Live Review | Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds and Upper Chapel, Sheffield | Review by Keith Belcher
A most common name for a very uncommonly talented musician. The previous Sunday on the Radio Leeds Durbervilles Folk and Roots Radio Show they had joked about his name. They asked if it was real and did he sign in at Hotels as Paul McCartney for anonymity. He is well used to this and takes it very humourously. It does make him somewhat more difficult to Google. This tour was to promote his fifth album Headlong, (7th if you count the two live CDs). The new CD should have been available on the tour but will not be available for one reason or another until May 19th. The CD is dedicated to the late John Renbourn, a great musician and close friend of John’s. It was recorded in a week at Sam Lakeman’s Studios in Somerset, Sam also produced. John describes the CD as his response to events in his life becoming overwhelming and seemingly out of control. At one point he dedicated the CD to all those in danger of a nervous breakdown.
John Smith’s voice has been described as somewhere between Nick Drake and John Martyn or, and in my opinion, quite accurately as, “gravel in honey”. He has opened for, amongst others, Iron & Wine, David Gray, John Martyn, Jools Holland and Lisa Hannigan. The last few years have been spent playing guitar and backing vocals for the likes of Lianne La Havas, Lisa Hannigan and Cara Dillon. John’s solo shows are remarkably quiet, they make Chris Wood seem loud. He is also very quietly spoken between songs. This doesn’t stop him engaging in witty banter with audiences.
His long time friend John was at the controls of the soundboard for both shows. John Smith uses two Fylde acoustic Guitars, named on the set list as Cedar and Spruce and also a pale blue Fender Stratocaster. Also a new and very impressive looking Gold Capsuled Edwina Condensor microphone takes pride of place on stage. Both guitar playing and voice are stripped back and deliberately sparse but oh so rich, less is certainly more in his case. Both venues I saw him have beautiful sound and are both very stunning buildings. The last time he played the Howard Assembly Rooms he opened for Iron and Wine. His very first appearance in Leeds was opening for John Martyn at The City Varieties in 2006. He sang John Martyn’s “Walk To The Water” on a recent tribute album to the great man.
A lot of the songs played were new to all but the fans who saw him on his brief sold out mini tour last November. He launches into “Far Too Good” from his new CD with no introduction. Immediately the audience can recognise just why there are many comparisons with the late great John Martyn, both voice and guitar. The song is about a close friend having a hard time and feeling very down. Joanna, written in the Pacific North West, also from the new CD followed. This featured a not quite seamless but very effective change from acoustic to electric mid song. A beautiful melody fading away at the end. He joked he had the change down to a tenth of a second at HAR and quarter of a second at Sheffield, not quite!! Electric guitar features strongly on both this tour and apparently also on the new CD. Staying with electric we get “Great Lakes”, title track of the 2013 CD. Starting with some very gentle and sensitive guitar and just before the end switching to acapella vocals before the most sublime guitar conclusion. Back on acoustic “Headlong” follows, the title track of the forthcoming CD then “Something Terrible” from first CD, 2006’s The Fox and the Monk, a very gentle but powerful love song. Special effects of organ sounds mysteriously emerged originating from John’s foot pedals. John has a humourous and responsive audience rapport which unlike many artists changes from night to night in response to his audience.
At the Howard Assembly Room he jokingly took the coughers in the audience to task, afterwards asking himself did I really say that out loud. It didn’t make much difference to cough suppression but raised a laugh. At Sheffield the Church layout and Grade 2 listing meant you couldn’t drink in the venue and the toilets and bar were situated behind the stage/Altar. There was either an outbreak of incontinence or alcoholism on the night as a steady stream constantly walked in front of the stage to get to the bar or facilities. John remarked on this as a suspected stage invasion engaging in much banter with the crowd. Another new song “Undone” with very capable and almost chiming dextrous finger picking, co-written with Sam Genders who was the co-promoter of the Sheffield gig with his wife Sofia. Accomplished and at times very delicate bottleneck slide guitar accompanied “Town To Town”, another from Great Lakes also co-written with Sam, detuning towards the end and using the guitar as percussion. John comparing this song to the feeling after a late night out (obviously nothing to do with the gigs being in Leeds on Friday and Sheffield on Saturday, well known sober times for both cities!!!) “Living in Disgrace” featured many special effects crowd favourite the “Freezing Winds of Change”, another from Great Lakes further demonstrated his skill at writing great catchy hummable lyrics to deceptively simple melodies. “Coming Home” followed, a co-write with the great Lisa Hannigan. This prompted a funny story about surprisingly hearing the song on 6 Music sung by Gabrielle Aplin while creating Chicken a la Smith with simulated chopping motions). The guitar playing resembling somewhere between bluegrass and a piano rag at times. A brief tease of “Sultans of Swing” was heard at Sheffield. Desire followed a house moving story, the song itself being about the need to put down some roots. A long sustained note merging into organ sounds and delightful slide made it sound like far more than one person on the stage. The audience really appreciated that song. Leeds was treated to a very passable cover of Loretta by the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Along with Tom Waites, Townes seems to be the person most musicians cover by choice. Back to Great Lakes for the popular song “There Is A Stone”, co written with good friend John Henry which got John much media coverage, if not much money for the zillions of Spotify plays. Both the lyrics and guitar style are captivating, the voice diminishing and raising to a crescendo throughout finished the set at Leeds. “Salty & Sweet”, written about John’s home town in Devon, performed on the CD with Lisa Hannigan, finished the set proper at Sheffield.
John of course was welcomed at both venues for an encore. “Save My Life” (Great Lakes) was followed by the very catchy “Salty & Sweet” at Leeds. Both shows ended with the very wonderful “Winter” (Fox), a cosmic song inspired by reading of a shark giving birth. John uses his guitar (Cedar), placed on his lap as a percussion instrument. Capo set just below the 6th fret, not covering all strings. The entire body of the guitar is used as well as the strings which are played percussively with the finger tips to great effect. A quite haunting song to end truly great performances on successive nights. Despite living in Leeds I have to give the award for crowd participation and singing to Sheffield. The responses during “Great Lakes” and “Salty & Sweet” were wonderful to witness. I think John was actually surprised at the quality and volume of the unprompted (and very tuneful) whistling during “Salty”. Leeds however won out for comfort, despite the cushions on the pews there was noticeable shifting of position towards the end of John’s set.
Hopefully, if John’s busy schedule allows, there will be another solo/band tour to promote the CD once released although I doubt many that were present at either gig will wait that long to buy said item. John has been rumoured to play guitar on a new album from Joan Baez and also to appear with John Henry on the next Martin Simpson CD, something that not many guitarists get offered.
Support was provided by Brooke Bentham, a singer songwriter in her early twenties from South Shields, now living in New Cross. She has been compared to Sharan Van Etten and Angel Olsen for emotional depth. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Fleet Foxes have been cited as influences. She has a powerful voice capable of effortlessly going from neutral to overdrive in one phrase. She accompanies herself with relatively simple strummed guitar on a blue Fender, intentionally adjusted to just shy of distortion. Her meaningful, deep lyrics and music often sound far bleaker than her years should permit. Unrequited love, hardships and broken relationships feature strongly in her lyrics. “If I Was Dead” opened her set, “I Need Your Body” followed. Oliver followed, an earlier single, which to my ears had refrains of Laura Marling in the chorus, another reviewer thought refrains of Martha Wainwright. Radiohead’s “House of Cards” was covered in her own style very stripped back. Returning to her own songs, “Have To Be Around You”, followed the themes of earlier songs and new release “Heavy & Ephemeral” finished her set. Perhaps being in the shadow of the musical genius that is John Smith or also listening to some of her songs on Soundcloud made me want to see her with a full band behind her. I think the full band sound on recorded material really allows her voice to shine. Someone to look for in the future.