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Venue: Kingskerswell Parish Church
Town: Exeter
Date: 22/10/17

‘Just another bearded bloke singing about his feelings’. John’s own words, but actually, no. Absolutely, he is not just that, not by any stretch of the imagination. John Smith is an awesome guitarist and the most eloquent of songwriters, and this gentleman of charm and wit delivered a magnificent and flawless performance for us this evening.

John’s fifth album ‘Headlong’ was released earlier this year and he is in the midst of an epic album release tour spanning the whole of the UK, Ireland and Europe, with dates now running into the new year. The show opened with two of the standout tracks from the new album, ‘Far Too Good’, and ‘Joanna’ with an extended ad lib at the end. The 90 minute set included most of the songs from the new album, lots of highlights from his ‘Great Lakes’ album, with a couple of songs from earlier recordings thrown in for good measure. Mostly played on his acoustic with its gorgeous tone, ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Living in Disgrace’ were delivered on a new vintage electric guitar, with an interesting delay effect that filled the church with sustained washes of chords and magnified the percussive elements of John’s playing style. In places the vocals became part of this intense sonic landscape, although John’s great lyrical writing still managed to rise to the top to pull us back into the narrative of the tunes.

With John you’re not getting a sterile rendition of album tracks as is, John remixes his vocal melodies, harmonies and rhythms on the fly. It is an unexpected delight that adds another layer of interest to his performance. The songs are organic, living breathing creations, his guitaring effortless, his vocal ranging from warm and gentle to gritty and incredibly powerful, great depth and feeling captured in his delivery. ‘There is a Stone’ is the perfect example of a song that took a different path to it’s recorded counterpart. John charged through the song with a sense of energy and urgency without dropping a note of the intricate guitar accompaniment. The inter song chat was, if a bit mumbly at times, equally entertaining, informative and amusing, strewn with jokes and witty asides.

This was somewhat of a homecoming gig for John; touchingly, he paid tribute to a teacher from his sixth form college down the road. The whole feel of the evening was relaxed and comfortable, and, combined with the atmospheric lighting and standard lamps behind the stage area, gave the show a feeling of an intimate lounge concert, a personal show, specially created for this warmly appreciative audience; at times you could hear a pin drop. The ‘Great Lakes’ greatest hits kept giving, with added slide on ‘Town to Town’, another favourite, and the evening built to a close through the poignant ‘Save My Life’, the closing track on ‘Headlong’ to the jaunty and perhaps poppiest of his offerings, ‘Salty and Sweet’, which, after a little encouragement, had the audience singing along as John playfully delivered sections of the familiar tune in a rich, if unexpected, falsetto. With a bit of lap guitar for the encore, ‘Winter’, we were shown the full range and extent of John’s guitar skills.

In what felt like a bonus win, we found Tobias Ben Jacob as support. A perfect opener for John, both guitarists with their own distinctive styles, both thoughtful writers penning songs with emotional depth and tinged with darkness and an uplifting kind of melancholy. He opened a pacey set with the hypnotic ‘A Polyphonic Life’, the title track of his forthcoming new album, a song that explored the interplay of sparse, delicate textures and much richer bass harmonies from the guitar as a perfectly understated vocal soared across the arrangement. The solo washed over the space and demonstrated his technique and skill. The set continued through the driving ‘Burning Low’ to the esoteric ‘The Devil and Tobias Ben Jacob’ with its Spanish flavoured guitar and whispered vocal. This evening we were treated to a couple of new songs, ‘Real Love’ and ‘Parallel’, love songs touched with a wistful sadness. ‘Parallel’ in particular showed off the strength of Jacob’s lyrical writing, capturing the nostalgia of days spent playing in the fields near home with some standout lines. Watch out for the new album in the new year.

What Graham and Kate have achieved at Kingskerswell Parish Church is to be applauded. They have paired together a fabulous venue with excellent sound and atmospheric lighting and are offering a really extensive programme of folk and acoustic events, pulling in an impressive roster of really high quality acts. The musicians and audience alike are spoiled by the naturally resonant quality of the building coupled with sensitive amplification that made each note feel warm, crisp and immediate. Chatting to other audience members it was evident this is a much loved and valued resource not just for the locals, but it is also drawing an audience from further afield as well. Bring your own booze or choose from the superb range of teas on offer, make yourself at home and enjoy an evening of great music. With lashings of homemade cake.

Words: Jo Elkington and Lee Cuff

Photos: Jo Elkington

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