John Smith, Will Stratton: Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room

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John Smith

John Smith

John Smith is back to mesmerize us once again in Liverpool’s most musically graceful venue and Getintothis’ Howard Doupé prepares to be spellbound.

A buzz is always created when this pedigree adopted son of the city anchors into Liverpool.

With five albums under his belt and a lifetime of touring experience crammed in already, it’s hard to imagine a John Smith gig being anything but an earthy, soulful experience.

In a sold out show, the Saturday crowd are politely bubbling with expectation for the night ahead, set against the Philharmonic’s minimalist acoustics-enhancing wall panels that feel gigantic and somewhat overbearing. It’s unclear whether or not the choral tones being played through the PA are purposely trying to induce an ecclesiastical atmosphere.

Arriving onstage and commencing within the breakneck speed of the same heartbeat, Smith ushers forth opener Desire immediately grabbing the crowd. Delivered eyes closed this cut from latest release Headlong radiates a genuineness that’s often faked.  But not here.

It only takes two songs before we’re treated to that raspy ‘honey-soaked gravel’ voice hitting those high notes that Smith can reach with ease. Once again it’s a great delivery. Another new track Joanna is a set highlight as Smith carries on demonstrating the range of guitar-playing styles in his arsenal – woven with that familiar voice throughout.

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A quick gear change from acoustic to telecaster only adds a sprinkle of magic to proceedings. These multi-instrumented studio songs take on an intimate presentation when delivered solo.

Briefly revisiting his debut with Something Terrible, Smith announces, with only a little self-reflection, why that all too bandwagon-esque craze of touring career defining releases is not always the savviest thing to do – I bet many here would disagree.

The trickery that’s gracing the fretboard undeniably shows Smith’s mastery of his weapon of choice. Latest album titled track Headlong brings a vibrant soulfulness to the night proceedings.

Playing Liverpool is a rare treat for Smith, who comments that the sophisticated surroundings are miles away from his early gigging days at The JacarandaIt’s does beg to ask that with standing room only in an overly squashed seating arrangement, could Smith have short-changed himself playing such a small room? From the cavernous venues once played on the John Martyn tours, that desire for intimacy and quality was the correct card played perfectly.

It’s a rarity that you come across an artist who can connect so effortlessly to the crowd – creating a relaxing and sincere mood that is presented to them, almost unknowingly. Smith continually shares anecdotes and interesting facts, rather than the usual ‘this one is about…,’ that solo performers often lean on.

Throughout the course of the night we’re entertained with tales of early hour jet lag, heart-warming insight into artists’ mutual appreciation and how to expertly tackle Scouse burglars. Coupled with stories of how Smith once worked in this very building “out front and in the car park”, and in doing so gathers as much warmth from the in-between banter as from the tunes.

This longstanding guitar virtuoso has, over the course of numerous albums, created for himself that rare spot,  enabling mastery of an instrument to surrender to the greater cause of the craft. On offer tonight is a man whose calibre of song writing is to the forefront and is perfectly balanced with, at times, ethereal playing.

Finishing with To Have So Many – a song written in Aigburth – Smith exits to a standing ovation from many appreciative souls for enabling them to escape the usual Saturday night routine.

Support comes from New Yorker Will Stratton. Perfectly suited to the night- with fingerpicking on a par with Nick Drake singing from a 21st century perspective of life, with all its joys and woes. Stratton’s voice nestles in your ear like fondly remembered words of a friend that have resonated and struck a familiar chord.

Admitting that he’s slightly under the weather, tonight’s performance is intimately delivered as if these songs are the passing on of some great wisdom, a one-way dialogue of life experiences and observations. Pay astute attention, there may be golden nuggets to be claimed.

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