John Smith, with Georgia Lewis and Nina Harries; Gorilla, 19 October 2017.
I hate to say it, but it feels like Manchester Folk Festival may have created a rod for their own backs right from the very start. Because this event will be difficult to match. With sets from three very different acts, the festival immediately showed that the British folk scene is far from the stereotyped tweed, banjos, and beards scene that many might imagine. Nina Harries, the opening act, couldn’t have done more to dispel that idea if she’d tried. Just one woman and a double bass might not immediately make your hairs stand up with excitement, but those who made it there early enough to see this captivating set will have not gone away disappointed. At times she was like a British Agnes Obel, equally as talented on her instrument and with a voice almost as impressive. But at other, and possibly more interesting, times she was a mix of a classical musician, a folk singer, and a stand-up comedian. Perhaps the highlight of her set full of highlights was a wry tale of a failed date in Shoreditch in which she made the mistake of asking ‘Shoreditch Dicky’ what the difference between a flat white and a latte really was. It’s hard to put down in words just how interesting and exciting a performance this was, but if you get the chance to see Nina in concert make sure you take it. Whether you’re a fan of folk music or not.
The act that followed her onto the stage was definitely more for the traditionalists. Here, all those familiar stereotypes were on display, even down to the clogs, the Irish jig, and the acapella ending. This was part of a folk festival, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Georgia Lewis and her band would bring out these tropes. And much of the audience were more than happy with it. Unfortunately, though, as talented as they were, they simply suffered from being sandwiched between such a unique and original opening act and the inimitable headliner that most of the crowd had come down to see.
So, onto John Smith. He may not exactly be a household name, but John has created a following for himself through years of relentless touring and the release of records that seem to improve every time. He kicked off this performance with three songs from Headlong, his latest album. It was immediately obvious that we were in the presence of someone who belongs on the stage. “Far Too Good” is one of the catchiest and most effecting songs on Headlong and worked well as a set opener, letting the adoring audience ease into the performance and get reacquainted with the power of John’s voice in a live setting. Following this with “Possession” and “Joanna,” it is likely that he had those in the crowd who hadn’t already heard the new material checking in their pockets to see if they could afford to buy the album on the way out.
It was with a song from his previous album that John really took the performance up a notch, though. While “Salty and Sweet” might generally not be thought as one of the best songs on Great Lakes, it was the way he got the audience involved that made this such a special version. Cajoling us into singing along on the refrain and speaking to us in between the verses, John reminded us that it wasn’t just his songs that made him such a popular live act.
And it was once again his personality that added an extra little something to the title track of his new album when performed at Gorilla. Admitting, prior to beginning the song, that it had been written last year when he “came quite close to the edge” during a stressful time in his life, he managed to add an extra layer of meaning to a performance that had already threatened to tug on the emotions at various times. Closing the main set with “To Have So Many,” arguably his best song so far, ensured that the emotions over spilled and the audience got what they came here for.
If you were to ask fans what John Smith’s main attribute is, there would be very few who would say anything other than his voice. But in closing the encore with “Winter,” John also reminded us what a special guitar player he can be. Sitting on his microphone box he placed the guitar face up on his knee and plucked it at the same time as he played it like a drum. Add some of his best vocals to this, and you had a very special way to end a very special evening. John Smith was amazing, and Manchester Folk Festival had kicked off in spectacular fashion.