Bridget St John

Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson

On the way to Sheffield tonight I set myself a task, to write a piece about the singer songwriter Bridget St John whilst deliberately omitting the name of John Peel, which I soon found to be impossible; those two names are so inextricably linked. Choosing to dodge this predictable opener, something along the lines of ‘John Peel’s protege’ or perhaps ‘championed in the early days by John Peel’, I found Bridget’s own mention of the late radio presenter’s name, barely a couple of minutes into the set, somehow important to mention. This was the fact that her previous night’s gig, as part of her current UK tour, was staged at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket near the Peel family home, after which the singer stayed at the hallowed Peel Acres with his widow Sheila. Bridget went on to point out that her cellist Sarah Smout also took a dip in the family pool before heading up to Sheffield, a city Bridget has somehow managed to avoid since her early student days, when she attended Sheffield University to study both French and Italian, a good fifty years ago. The Greystones was surprisingly hot tonight as the place filled up with an audience predominantly made up of people who remember those early years, those days before Bridget obtained her Green Card and moved over to New York in 1976. Despite leaving out many of the memorable songs from her early repertoire, such as “To B Without a Hitch”, “Curl Your Toes” and “Barefeet and Hot Pavements”, the singer filled some of those gaps with homages to her most notable contemporaries; Bob Dylan for instance, with the opener “Just Like a Woman”, then on to Joni Mitchell, whose unaccompanied “Fiddle and the Drum” segued into her own version of “America the Beautiful” and then finally, completing the set, Leonard Cohen’s timeless “Suzanne”. “People tell me that I find the best covers” she said, going on to reveal, “actually, they find me”. The advantage of a young singer having a mature voice beyond her age, is that she will probably still have it in later years and tonight Bridget sounded pretty much the same as she always has, singing songs that could quite easily be mistaken for those performed back in her early years. We recall Bridget on the Old Grey Whistle Test, breathing down Bob Harris’s neck whilst performing the whimsical “Nice” and the yet to be named “Long Long Time”, or on one of Peel’s many radio shows. There was just thirteen songs played tonight, Nice being one of them, together with the alluring “Fly High” and “Ask Me No Questions”, the title song from her Peel produced debut back in 1969, but devoid of her producer’s atmospheric church bells and birdsong samples – “the times people have come up to me and pointed out that those birds and bells could never have been recorded together at the same time”. Bridget has clear memories of the old days and refers to such former collaborators, John Martyn, Kevin Ayers and Michael Chapman as her ‘brothers in music’ and tonight, Bridget was joined by her ‘sister in music’ the young cellist Sarah Smout, who provided all the necessary atmosphere with her empathetic strokes of the bow, mostly delivered with a distinct lightness of touch, then at one point going full throttle rock n roll on the Kevin Ayres-era “If You’ve Got Money”, before slapping her instrument in unison with Bridget on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s passionate gospel-fuelled “Lazarus”. These days, when the tired old folk club format is often challenged, the compere, the support, the raffle and the awkward encore procedure that folkies tend to make a bigger issue out of than necessary, it makes a pleasing change to see an artist of Bridget St John’s stature, the female equivalent to Nick Drake, walk on stage unannounced, follow no tiresome opening act, avoid stopping midway through for a break and then to provide a set of memorable songs with a Leonard Cohen classic encore, each delivered in an old fashioned, no nonsense manner – it all made for just the kind of night I enjoy the most.