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  • Rose Cousins
  • Nick Ellis
St George’s Hall 21/10/18

The grand and opulent surrounds of the Concert Room at St George’s Hall, with its elegant pillars and gilded carvings – once favoured by Dickens for readings – provides the most perfect backdrop for a Sunday evening of well crafted song from JOHN SMITH, an adopted son of the city.

NICK ELLIS’ performance at the beginning of this evening of song and story is, perhaps predictably, a triumph. The soulful howl of his voice reaches the dome of the room; a microphone is hardly necessary. The longer time goes on, the more confident he seems to become. The cyclical guitar motifs, hypnotic and absorbing, so pin-sharp in their delivery, together with the many characters who inhabit his stories, make him a firm favourite in the city. His name grows, and rightly so. Blue Summer, taken from this summer’s Speakers’ Corner album, seems to find its natural setting in the Concert Room. Ellis is a truly skilled and prolific songsmith, with a prodigious talent for weaving these tales together.

John Smith Image 3

Before John Smith takes to the stage, ROSE COUSINS, fresh off a plane from Nova Scotia, delivers an all too short set of graceful folk songs, backing herself on guitar, piano and uke. Tender Is The Man, a sparse and fragile song, which sees her musing on men’s expectations of themselves, is held up with warm piano chords and a rich vocal performance, which reminds us of Joan Baez or Suzanne Vega. Cousins should win awards for self-deprecation, and she is aware, she tells us, that “I’m the only thing between you and John Smith, don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon.” It’s a statement that flies in the face of the mood in the room. Farmer’s Wife, another piano ballad, tells the simple country story of a wife and mother’s life raising the children and running the house while her husband works the fields.

Touring on the back of his fifth album, Hummingbird, Smith delivers a set hewn from those albums, a mix of original material and his interpretations of more traditional songs. The recent album’s opener and title track is the perfect example of Smith’s style. Hummingbird sounds familiar, as though it’s been a part of our musical landscape for years. There’s a subtle economy in his playing, nothing is forced or overstated, which creates the space for his road-worn and whiskeyed soul vocal.

Through his deft and frequently deliciously individual guitar style, he picks up on elements of traditional English folk, jazz, French Chanson, artists such as Chris Wood and John Martyn, Hispanic folk and the old country songs of the Appalachians, and weaves them through the tales of his life, of love and of the road. And, of course, a murder ballad or two.

The ancient British trad ballad, The Lowlands Of Holland, an anti-war song of love, loss and regret, is a high moment in the set; tonight it’s leant extra layers of melodic beauty with the delicate sweeps of the violin of John McCusker and the guitar of John McGurk. It is both a graceful and masterful telling of the tale made his own. This is what Smith does so well and why he’s so fondly thought of.

Taken from 2013’s Great Lakes album, She Is My Escape is another highlight. Here is a song so rich in romanticism, so breathlessly delivered, it’s yearning lyric and honey warm vocal make it impossible to not love. We could quite easily listen to him play that song all night. Caught in a truly magical moment as he lets love rule. It’s in those moments, the stories told, the delicacy and romance of it all, and his relaxed laconic humour that make Smith’s gigs such a treasure, such a pleasure. Standing ovations follow; the stunning venue filled with happy and appreciative faces.

This venue, these acoustics, and these perfectly suited artists together join the bill make this an evening to remember. An evening for the sake of the song.

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