John Smith – Unitarian Church, Brighton – 16th November 2018

Photo by Anna Claxton

Canadian Rose Cousins has the voice of an angel, so the Unitarian Church is the perfect venue for her. Her vocal fills the room as does her personality. Between songs she holds conversation comfortably about herself and her music. She also asks where she can get the best Full English breakfast in Brighton before inviting the audience to ask questions in return. Someone wants to know who inspires her musically? The reply is, not surprisingly, Patty Griffin and Joni Mitchell “and many others”. The likeness is uncanny due to Rose’s own emotional honesty and vulnerability and soaring use of melody – using piano, then guitar, then ukulele to accompany her traditional songwriting. Borrowing from the best of America’s folk/country sirens, she brings a reverence to the Unitarian Church but also a homeliness. She talks about her choice not to have kids and laughs at the delighted shouts that acknowledge this announcement, then encourages a backing choir from the crowd and graciously thanks tonight’s headliner by admiring his “strong head of hair”. Playing many tracks from her 2017 Grammy-nominated album Natural Conclusion, you can see her in her own show on 1st April next year at The Greys. It will be worth the wait.

In fact, it is safe to say that Rose Cousins outperforms John Smith in many ways. The West Country-based folk singer seems somewhat uneasy and, in contrast to his support act, doesn’t say much at all. Flanked by eerily identical twins – who even share the same beard style and long hair – while Smith’s unfussy presence is beautiful, of course, his charisma seems lacking in spades. Smith wants absolute silence to the point that the intensity to achieve this is faintly unnerving at times. Someone in the church’s mezzanine level inexplicably has a big bunch of keys and between songs seems to do a jig in the background, which annoys Smith. “If that person doesn’t stop shaking those keys, I’m going to find them and I’m going to kill them”, he eventually jokes. There is easy laughter from the audience but it becomes frustrating that the smallest of sounds should be his focus when we are all extremely focussed on him. He later goes on to ask a member of the event’s team to shut the front door of the church because he can hear the drunken students in the Mash Tun pub opposite. Not only that but, when some latecomers to the gig arrive and stand at the back, he makes a point of asking them to sit down properly. “I don’t want to make a scene but now I’ve made a scene”, he mumbles. At least this is the perfect place to hope to God that no one needs to sneeze.

Unfortunately, it’s this need to have everything just ‘so’, that finally ends up ruining the special atmosphere Smith seems so hell bent on creating. Rather than losing himself in the music, he seems on edge, though he does seem to relax more half way through the set (maybe he gave a tour manager the nod and they disposed of the key jangler). He talks fondly of Brighton, having lived here for a few years a while back, and delivers a gorgeous rendition of something he wrote in Seven Dials, alongside many tracks he introduces from brand new album, Hummingbird. The twins – one on guitar and one on double bass – lend a rock and roll aesthetic and their two-piece harmonies compliment Smith’s own gravelly voice. Still, having been compared to Ray LaMontagne, Smith has less mystique and certainly less of the ability to leave his disciples feeling like they have had their hearts ripped out (in a good way).

That said, he is clearly obsessive about music, which does give him a certain depth. He appears to drop his guard when he enthusiastically describes his love of what he is about to play, one of his favourite songs no less, so revered that he has listened to every version ever recorded (he is very softly spoken and this reviewer is really quite deaf so couldn’t tell you what it was sadly). However, even the way he plays guitar, though truly accomplished and intricate in detail, can’t help but feel measured this evening. Indeed, there is scarcely any light and shade in his performance. There is no denying that Smith is a gifted musician and passionate about what he does – and has had deserving praise heaped on him from many worthy artists in his chosen genre – but the magic and romance that he displays so eloquently on recordings doesn’t quite emerge on this occasion. Thank goodness the Christmas lights have just been switched on to give Brighton some sparkle.

Anna Claxton