John Smith – Hummingbird

Increasingly a household name in the folk world, John Smith has swiftly followed up on last year’s exceptional Headlong with another superb collection of gems. This time, he has cast his net wide for inspiration and delved deep into the rich history of the genre – Hummingbird is made up largely (with some notable exceptions) of updated versions of folk standards. It also confirms Smith as a worthy descendant from the line of Renbourn, Thompson, Jansch, Drake et al.

Produced again by Sam Lakeman, the mantra ‘less is more’ runs through every track, with the majority formed simply of one man with a phenomenal voice and his distinctive guitar style. The arrangements are all beautifully played and perfectly pitched, indeed, it is hard at times to differentiate between his new material and the covers here. Opening with the beautiful title track, a tale of love cruelly snatched away by the tides of fate, it is the perfect entry point into Smith’s world. His rich, honeyed voice hits you first, quickly followed by the gentle, intricate playing style which he has become known for.

Of course, the folk genre is one that has been around for hundreds of years – due to the high drama inherent to the songs themselves. So it is with the likes of ‘Lowlands of Holland’, again wrapped around the trio of love, loss and dedication, new life breathed into them faithfully by Smith and the accompanying fiddle of John McCusker. The latter’s presence haunts the album, ghosting sublimely into tracks at opportune moments. The covered tracks themselves range from the 15th century (the stunning ‘Unquiet Grave’, performed here with Cara Dillon), to the 1960s (Bert Jansch and John Renbourn’s ‘The Time Has Come’). What is ever present throughout is the love that Smith plainly carries for his material, and indeed for the entire scope of the genre. Every song presented here has that passion running straight through it. Much of the lyrical content is naturally old-fashioned, yet so engrossed are you in the world by then that it doesn’t even register as out of the ordinary.

Even with the new material, it still contains the same timeless quality and shows the same attention to story-telling detail. As well as the title track, ’Boudica’ tells the fiery tale of the Queen of the East (“From hell she came for vengeance sought, piling heads at Roman doors”). ‘Axe Mountain (Revisited)’ meanwhile, presents a dark tale of murder and revenge that would send a chill up the spine of all from Dartmoor to the Appalachians. Hummingbird may be John Smith’s homage to the genre in which he operates, but in truth the scales of balance are now tipping the other way due to the sheer quality of output that shows no sign of slowing down. Exceptional.

Jamie Macmillan