SJ Brett – Hope and Ruin – 6th March 2019

You simply cannot keep a great songwriter down. A founding member of Brighton based The Mojo Fins, Stephen (SJ) Brett has found his feet again, with a new band that includes Paul Pascoe on bass, Oddur Runnarson on guitar and Nick Van Vlaenderen on drums. This is only their third gig together, but there’s a natural chemistry apparent from the off, as they effortlessly gel as a unit.

Tonight’s event is a fundraiser for Grassroots Suicide Prevention, a local charity that is making great strides in helping and encouraging people to talk more. This is an area close to Brett’s heart, and his songs permeate with thoughtful meditations on life, love, loss, fear, and even a bit of loathing, self and otherwise, while the music is a broad sweep of soulful indie pop, veering from the dreamy to the rocking.

Songs such as ‘Fear Factory’ display the strides Brett has made in broadening out his palette with this new band, this one even including a mild bout of scat! While ‘When I Go’ is built on an ascending chord sequence, where atop a cloud of gentle dreaminess sits Brett’s beautifully controlled soul-rich outpourings.

Brett picks up an electric 12-string for the bright and propulsive indie-pop ‘Repeatedly Forever’, containing more than a side sweep it appears, against the politics of the day, Runnarson filling in the spaces with subtle textures. Brett dedicates ‘Your Little England’ to those who are find themselves in limbo (or perhaps of purgatory), further declaring that the song is “about the sociological impact of Brexit”.

The supremely crafted song-smithery continues with a song about Belfast (Things Have Changed But I Remember) – a place he lived for a while, while a cover of Villagers ‘Set The Tigers Free’ is part bossa-nova, before it transforms into an uncharacteristic blistering wall of sound, Runnarson a man possessed as he wildly attacks his guitar.

While Brett is the focus, all band do their parts more than admirably. In particular Runnarson’s consistently skillful and artistic guitar work adds texture and colour throughout, but never overwhelming the overall sound, while Pascoe is a model of less-is-more, and the completely blind Van Vlaenderen plays his kit with crafted precision, adding vocal harmonies here and there.

Brett is thoroughly enjoying tonight, a spirited audience finally persuading him to go it alone for a solo encore of ‘Outdoor Type’, delivered with a rare honesty and passion all too missing from many an aspiring singer songwriter. They would do well to hear how it should be done.

Jeff Hemmings