Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson
County Cork’s John Blek arrived tonight in Sheffield as part of his latest UK tour with plenty of material to draw upon, not least one or two songs from his latest album The Embers, which has just been released to favourable reports. His fifth album to date, closely following last year’s Thistle and Thorn, The Embers continues to showcase the singer songwriter’s credentials as a leading voice in a huge sea of contemporary voices currently working on the acoustic music circuit. With a couple of guitars and a forlorn shruti box sharing the spotlight, John casually strolled on stage before a small but attentive Backroom audience in Sheffield, opting to deliver just the one full set rather than bothering himself and the audience with a pointless break between two shorter sets. This allowed John to settle into his stride with an impressive selection of songs from his now prolific repertoire.
Opening with the gentle “Hannah”, a song that could very well reference the lonely troubadour life, “there’s no Champagne or chandeliers” he sings, “just a cold bed in some old hotel, after all my songs are sung.” Home sickness doesn’t obviously permeate John’s set, in fact at one point the singer confesses “I might look sad up here, but I’m only pretending”, continuing with a wry smile, “inside, I’m fucking dancing”. Such is the between song banter, which reveals a certain warmth between strangers. John talks of home, of being a lapsed Catholic, of being newly engaged, “to be married” he stresses, rather than being simply indisposed. He tells us that this is the fourth live appearance since Christmas and appears to be completely relaxed before those who have taken the time to come out to see him perform.
At times it’s difficult to keep an audience engaged with one self-penned song after another, yet with such strong and engaging material, the room remained enthusiastic throughout, as John traversed his back catalogue with “The Night and the Liquor”, “Lightness and Weight” and “Little Sparrow” from 2016’s Cut the Light, “Lace”, “No Surrender” and “Salt in the Water” from 2017’s Catharsis, Vol 1, whilst “North Star Lady”, “The Blackwater” and the beautiful “The Body” represented some of the material from John’s most recent album from last year, Thistle and Thorn. Apologising for the absence of Joan Shelley, who originally duetted with the singer on “The Body”, John declared “you’ll have to put up with me doing both parts”. It was pretty much about the new album though and tonight John revealed just three of the new songs, “Death and His Daughter”, allegedly about his future in-laws, although I’m not convinced, “Empty Pockets” the album opener and finally “Flame (Little Death No 3)”, “We lit a fire and we let it burn, stoking the embers and taking our turn..”, a lyric from which the title derives, each song performed with an assured confidence, a strong voice and a mature finger picked guitar style.
Towards the close of play, John inquired if there might be any requests from the audience, to which came the quite unexpected call for Tim Hardin’s timeless “If I Were a Carpenter”, which the singer was only too pleased to perform, coupling it with Leadbelly’s “When I Was a Cowboy”, giving the audience an opportunity to get their tonsils around a chorus of “Come a ki-ki-yicky, Cow, ki-yicky-yicky-yeah!” There was definitely room for more bums on seats tonight, but those comfortably in place enjoyed a treat of top drawer song writing and performance.