“It’s like The Beatles all over again” quipped John Smith, shortly after a member of the audience in a tightly-packed venue fainted during his opening song (only after checking she had recovered). While maybe not quite reaching those heady heights, this was a performance that continued to establish Smith as one of the giants of the modern folk genre. This year’s Headlong has enjoyed richly deserved rapturous critical acclaim, and the combination of these emotional torch-songs and the intimate venue gave the impression that Smith was performing just for each of us in our own living room.
Support Will Stratton formed the perfect combination with Smith, giving a wonderfully fragile performance. Recently signed to Bella Union, Stratton had an air of Bert Jansch and Nick Drake about him with the introspective nature of his songs. ’Thick Skin’ with its warning of “You can booze if you want to but your problems, they drink too/move away brother, maybe they won’t move too” and the older ‘My Wild Rose’ were particular highlights. For Smith to have an enigmatic artist of such a high quality as an opening act is obviously a great coup, and now with a great label behind him we can expect to see and hear more from him in these parts.
As for Smith himself, his performance was stunning. Ambling onto stage and moving straight into ‘Far Too Good’, the setting allowed every single aspect to be magnified tenfold. A former Brighton resident, he proclaimed his delight at being back in the “second best city in the world, behind Hove”. While his voice was at its smoky and commanding best, his guitar-playing was wonderfully intricate with a simple beat tapped on to the body throughout. The gentle blues of ’Desire’ was particularly breath-taking, as was the Americana-tinged ‘Town To Town’ which provoked audible gasps from the onlookers following its delicious final note. There was a real warmth emanating from the stage, heating up even the icy tracks such as ’Freezing Winds Of Change’ and ‘Winter’.
Always piercing through any melancholy mood with a fantastic sense of humour, Smith was an engaging host all night. Either quipping that the subject (and former lover) of the beautiful ‘Something Terrible’ is “dead to me now”, or laughing that he would love to do a ten-year anniversary tour of his debut album but can’t “because it’s terrible”, he is hilarious. Underneath all the levity is a set packed with beautiful songs, delivered with an absolute vocal mastery. He has a rare in-built ability to perfectly control the volume of his voice and guitar solely by himself, something that sounds simple on paper but requires an exceptional talent. ‘There Is A Stone’ and ‘Undone’ were perfect examples of this, with the latter’s guitar sound dropping in and out as required. The show finished with an incredible version of ‘Winter’, guitar laid flat upon his knees as he used it more as a percussive instrument than anything else, flicking and tapping the strings as he did so.
As he thanked the audience for coming to his show rather than seeing Father John Misty (playing down the road at Brighton Dome), it was a heartfelt moment. What he perhaps didn’t realise is that this was just one of seven major gigs on in town on the same night, a testament to the strength of not just the Brighton scene but his own pulling power. Tonight was just more content to add to the growing evidence that Smith is an artist that once discovered cannot be forgotten, one whose work is already destined to be stumbled upon and enjoyed for generations to come.