John Smith photo by Francesca Nottola

John Smith photo by Francesca Nottola


St. Philip’s church in Salford, through vicar Andy Salmon, has been the location of various performances in the past few years. A 2011 M.E.N. interview with the vicar reveals that the programming has also included, interestingly, a regular ‘Goth, Metal, 80s and Punk club night’. Despite the conventional religious setting, the organisation behind these shows subverts any idea of church-related shows we might have. Tonight’s concert, promoted by Band on the Wall, is sold out, but the large size of the venue allows attendees to choose seats both on the ground floor and in the balcony.

Tonight it’s the turn of folk singers and songwriters John Smith, from Devon, and Dennis Ellsworth, from Canada. The two have collaborated on a few songs such as ‘Forever To The End’, on John Smith’s most recent album Great Lakes, and this is the final show of a two-year tour to promote the record.

Unfortunately, I manage to catch only the end of Dennis Ellsworth’s set, in time to just hear him mention Tim Hardin and Baltimore and his final thanks to John Smith for inviting him to join his tour. He tells us about their relationship and how they spent weeks in Smith’s house eating, drinking and waiting for the rain to stop – ‘No beach’, he remarks, disappointed.

John Smith gets on stage at 21:00 with two musicians from Belfast: a guitarist, maybe called John Gerdin, whom we shall call ‘Brown Jesus’, because he has long dark hair and a beard, and a double bass player whose name was impossible for me to grasp, whom we shall call ‘Blond Jesus’, because he also has long hair and a beard but in a blond shade. Smith comments, later, that Blond Jesus came straight from Game of Thrones. Smith and Blond Jesus exhibit white shirts and a waistcoat and braces, respectively, taking us back to the 19th century, while Brown Jesus, with his jeans and Kurt Cobain-ish look is there to remind us that no, we are actually in 2015.

John Smith has been compared and associated with contemporary musicians like Bonnie Prince Billy and José González and other masters like Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and John Martyn. In fact, Smith was lucky enough to accompany Martyn on tour before he passed away. Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ is a regular cover in Smith’s gigs, and we can perceive the influence of Nick Drake in some of his songs (e.g. ‘England Rolls Away’, ‘She is My Escape’).

The choice of songs for this concert comes from both Great Lakes and his first album The Fox and the Monk.  Smith’s low voice is very nicely enriched by the Jesus’ higher pitched voices, which create a beautiful harmony very typical of a folk set.

John Smith photo by Francesca Nottola

John Smith photo by Francesca Nottola

Smith jokes with the audience and thanks us for choosing to spend our Friday night with him (‘There’s so many things to do in Manchester, did you not have anything better to do?’). He also enjoys teasing us with some Bach (‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’) and a folk version of AC/DC (‘You Shook Me All Night Long’) amid his own songs. Smith plays a gorgeous Fylde Falstaff steel-string acoustic guitar with a sharp cutaway that was specifically customised for him. Brown Jesus gently complements Smith’s fingerpicking and strumming with his archtop guitar and another acoustic one, while Blond Jesus paints the background with his double bass, played with and without a bow and in a quite unusual style. The sound of these guitars is simple and complementary. No virtuoso solos, it’s teamwork tonight. Everything in this performance is delicate, reassuring and pleasant. Smith and his colleagues stage an interesting alternative type of masculinity tonight: elegant, romantic and serene, no giant macho egos, for once.

In this first part of the set, the intense ‘There Is a Stone’ and ‘Freezing Winds of Change’ stand out, together with a few ‘booze-themed’ songs, like the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Down Where the Drunkards Roll’, for which we are invited to sing along if we wish, ‘but not out loud’. Smith explains he is not a churchgoer, but he does revere Sir Richard Thompson.

The songwriter then goes solo to play the romantic ‘Perfect Storm’, which emphasises his warm intense voice and his lively and creative guitar playing. On a few occasions, Smith mixes guitar styles and places his acoustic on his lap and taps it; other times he’ll stand and play it with a slide, other times he’ll completely detune a string mid-song. My favourite trick tonight is when he slips a bit of paper under the strings near the bridge and plays ‘So-so’. The paper not only stops the strings from vibrating but also makes a lovely little noise that any guitar geek would derive pleasure from. The piece of paper is then removed to play a final, vigorous strum. The audience enjoys the clever trick and applauds loudly.

Smith shares with us that it’s been a remarkable two years for him, with big shows he had not anticipated, and introduces the stripped bare ‘Lungs’, followed by the title track ‘Great Lakes’. The highlight of the night is the moment when Smith invites the audience to sing along to the catchy ‘Salty and Sweet’, to which the audience promptly responds. The loud clapping triggered by this song spurs Smith to debunk the myth of a dead music industry. ‘Independent music is real’, he says, ‘and we are living proof’.

The next song is ‘To Have So Many’, which generates a very good vibe in the hall, and loud applause. It’s 22.15 and Smith leaves the stage, causing people to energetically stomp their feet for more.

For the encore, Smith proposes his classic dramatic solo performance of ‘Winter’ placing his guitar on his legs and impressing the audience with his tapping technique and by playing harmonics.

Smith is joined on stage by Dennis Ellsworth for the last song and, after recalling a return trip from Coventry on a busy M6 that involved eating ‘a disgusting amount of cream doughnuts’, they play ‘Dark Moon’, written by Ned Miller, originally sung by Bonnie Guitar in 1957 and also performed by Elvis Presley. Applauds, hugs and bows. Lovely.

If one really has to find a few imperfections in this otherwise excellent and very enjoyable performance, it’s that many of the songs share the same tone. Also, I think that the influence of the folk greats Smith is indebted to can still be heard in his own songs. Smith has a fantastic voice, he is a very creative guitar player and an amazing performer who can engage and enthuse his audience with his humour and intensity. He has all the potential to join his folk greats and stand out if he carves his own unique style and perhaps explores a wider range of tonalities and rhythms.

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Francesca Nottola

I write, translate, edit texts and take pictures. I solve problems for pensioners and create problems to everyone else. Sometimes a history researcher and language tutor, I would happily live in a national archive or in the head of professional musicians. Unfortunately, I say what I think