Monday, 25 March 2013


When I first saw John Smith back in 2007 he strolled onstage with an acoustic guitar, took a seat, threw his head back and sang the first verse of the self-penned murder ballad Axe Mountain without accompaniment and with the whisky and cigarettes vocals of a man a good 40 years older than he looked (I’d have guessed mid-20s). That night he delivered a set that featured some of the greatest acoustic guitar playing I’d ever seen.
Back in 2003, Smith had been named Young Acoustic Guitarist of the Year. John Renbourn had called him ‘The future of acoustic music in this country’ and he’d opened for John Martyn at the Roundhouse earlier in ‘07– there are significant comparisons, in style, and a tacit refusal to drop neatly into that category marked ‘folk music’. All I knew was he’d blown me away and I wanted to hear more.   
A year later, I interviewed Smith for Article Magazine on his return to Barton’s Ropery Hall and asked him about his unique guitar style, who inspired him and what were the current influences on his playing?
I've been very interested in African players. Modeste (acoustic/roots guitar player from Madagascar) is amazing and he showed me one of his songs but I can't get my English fingers around his syncopated rhythms. Perhaps in ten years I'll have an idea of what it is he's doing. I've gone crazy about Nic Jones too, his playing was just unbelievable. I've just really gone cold on the percussive instrumental stuff, putting your hands upside down on the frets and all that. Johnny Dickinson told me, ‘There's only so much of this shite people can take before they want a fucking song, you know?’ And I think he's right.’
Cut, via the brilliant Map or Direction (2009) – recorded on location across the USA with ambient railroad bells and the natural reverb of a Texas mens’ room – to a truly eclectic collection of covers on Eavesdropping (2011) to Smith’s first album of original material in nearly four years: Great Lakes is released today with songs very much to the fore.
A couple of tracks from the album (Town to Town and Freezing Winds of Change) have been Youtube favourites for a few weeks and last Thursday I heard the rest live at York’s Basement. Blown away again. John Smith remains a stunning acoustic player, but it's as if his writing has come of age. Perfect Storm is one of a dozen songs that render the audience pin-drop silent for a split second before applause rings around the room. It’s a spine-tingling night of songs from Great Lakes and a sprinkling of favourites dating back to Smith's 2006 debut, The Fox and the Monk.
Live, Jon Thorne’s double-bass is a perfect foil for Smith’s virtuoso playing (on the album, strings, percussion and additional vocals from Lisa Brannigan add to the richness of tone and colour). On the new songs Smith's voice claims equal billing: one moment barely more than a whisper, the next soaring, soulful, smoky. It’s a spellbinding live performance and further evidence that Johnny Dickinson’s words were taken to heart: these are some great fucking songs.
Having spent the evening as a stand up player, when John Smith emerges for an encore someone shouts, 'sit down'.
'Was that a heckle?'
'No,' shouts the punter, 'I meant sit down - and play Winter.'
'Maybe I will, and maybe I won't,' says Smith.
He does. Perfect end. Perfect gig.
John Smith's tour continues across the UK until 7 April, see website for details: Great Lakes is available from Amazon and itunes.

Sunday, 10 March 2013


When I first started playing guitar in bands in the mid-1980s there were rumours of this guy, a drummer who would occasionally sit in on sessions. He’d never take money and those who played with him were never the same again. One night after a gig at the Half Moon in Herne Hill, I got talking to an old horn player with cracked lips and an uneven accent that hit New York and Harlesden in a single sentence. He said he liked my playing and looked like he’d been around. I asked if he’d ever heard the rumours about the drummer. He fell silent, then said for a drink and three cigarettes he would tell me the story of how he’d once played with the man.
They were six months in and they needed a drummer when he appeared. For the next year he kept them together. He had the chops, a break-beat groove that was all about edge, a ninth floor parapet balancing act.
Some nights it might have fallen apart. But they learned to trust him, work off him, dispensing with four on the floor certainties. He drove them on. He could always be better; they could only be as good as he was. Licks lifted from players in second-rate bar bands came alive with his funk threading the rhythms.
They played on through that summer stirring A&R interest, earning verbal assurances. Until one unfathomably hip cokehead at the back of a pub in Kentish Town put the papers on the table and flipped the lid off his biro. The drummer refused to sign: it wasn’t right for them. The band met without him. They cast their votes, called the A&R and resurrected the deal. The deal fell through.
They carried on without him, knowing in their heart of hearts it would never work. They auditioned drummers. None made the grade. Then one day he was back in the studio when they arrived. His kit had been simplified, his timing honed tighter. Impeccable. Not a word was spoken as they started to rehearse the old songs. Slowly at first, until each change and turn had been unlearned and re-learned. This time chords went unplayed and he showed them the space you filled with anticipation, emphasised the breath before the brass kicked out and lifted them to another place.
That night at the Hammersmith Clarendon from the moment he clicked to count in, they stripped every ounce of flesh from the songs’ bones, broke them open and lay them bare.
‘You wanted it all,’ he said afterwards. ‘That was everything I got.’
He was back in if they wanted. Of course they wanted, but resigned to making a living without commercial compromise and company cash.
Friday night a week later at the Bull & Gate, the billboards announced the comeback of a band no one had ever heard before. He hadn’t shown for the soundcheck. Twenty minutes to go and he’d still not arrived. They borrowed a kit with a cracked crash cymbal, dragged the skinny crew-cut kid from the support band to sit in and keep time. Then the drummer was there. After the second song he took his place, then took the place apart.
             In the all night cafĂ© on the Caledonian Road they asked how come he was late?
‘Some fucker stole my van. The kit was in it.’
Had he got it back?
What happened to the fucker?
‘Boom-bap.’ It was all he said.
No one who was there that night, or any other night through winter and into the spring, ever forgot the band. The gigs started to come thick and fast across north London: Kilburn, Cricklewood, Neasden, Camden. The drummer could have had played with any band he wanted and as word spread once more the company slobs began turning up unannounced. But now it seemed they were looking for a different, younger breed. Eager, vulnerable, hungry for success. Not these couldn’t-give-a-fuck musicians with nothing to lose except each other. That’s just how it was.
On the night they played the Railway in West Hampstead he said he was leaving. He said he wanted the band to know he loved them, that he would always hold them close in his heart, that he didn’t want to destroy them, but it was time to move on.
Where would he go?
He thought for a moment, ground out one last Marlboro under his boot heel. ‘South,’ he said. ‘Deptford.’ 
And like a Kilburn Kwai Chang Caine in a good shirt, he was gone.
The horn player was dropping hints and I was out of cash. One last thing, he said. When they talked about it afterwards, they reckoned he’d been like a drummer priest, a zen-funk traveller with his kit in the back of a D-reg Bedford. I said goodbye and left him minesweeping the empty tables. I called my girlfriend from the payphone in the hallway. ‘It’s late,’ she said. I told her I was coming over, I had something I needed to talk about. I loaded my gear in the car, shoved in a cassette and hit play.
Boom-bap (c) Nick Triplow 2013
Kilburn Park Image attributed to Cnbrb 2007

Monday, 4 March 2013

ALL AT SEA - At Grimsby Central Library 6th March

'All At Sea' is a new festival of arts and literature in North East Lincolnshire's libraries which kicks off this week. It takes in a range of talks, workshops and arts and events throughout March and April, and on Wednesday evening (6th March) I'll be talking about the importance of oral history and the stories behind the two books, Distant Water and The Women They Left Behind. 
Oral History and Grimsby's Fishing Heritage starts at 6pm at Grimsby Central Library, Wedensday 6th March. To reserve a place call the library on (01472) 323600. 
For more information about the festival and events, visit the 'ALL AT SEA' website.