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.