“I hate name droppers,” Ethan Johns announces early in his set before recounting a session in which he got to record with some of the most famous names in rock music. It’s a conceit for which it’s easy to forgive him though. As record producer, mixer, engineer and session musician he’s played with them all – Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones…. the list goes on. So I guess it’s hard not to mention a superstar or two if you’re enquiring as to how his week was. Tonight, however, he’s mostly performing his own compositions with his band, The Black Eyed Dogs, on the last of a three night residency at the Servant Jazz Quarters in a side road just off the main Dalston strip.
According to Ethan Johns the new album showcased tonight, ‘Anamnesis,’ was recorded in the space of just a fortnight in a barn at the bottom of his garden. It sounds like his approach to producing his own material is similar to the one he adopts with artists in the recording studio i.e. favouring a raw style with analogue triumphing over digital and a stress on “no headphones.”
He has the same unstudied approach to touring as well, with little in the way of band rehearsals preceding these gigs, although this isn’t apparent from the way the band attack rollicking lead track from the new album, ‘Runaway Train.’ It’s a great start, although the momentum is slightly lost as Johns fumbles around deciding on which song to play next. This is repeated a number of times throughout the hour and twenty minute long set although this doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the mostly die hard audience continually calling out for songs. Also aired from ‘Anamnesis’ was the dark ‘Spare A Thought For Katie Bell’ (Johns had said he wanted to keep the show light and upbeat but gave in here to a crowd request) and ‘Ruskin’s Farthing,’ a standout number loosely based on the 1877 trial when the painter, Whistler, sued John Ruskin for libel for criticism of Whistler’s artwork, the judge awarding the painter a derisory farthing as compensation for his hurt feelings.
The influence of rock royalty on Ethan Johns’ own compositions is never far away, ‘Silver Liner,’ from the album of the same name having echoes of Neil Young, while the seven minute long ‘The Knot of Aurelius Augustine,’ with its repeated refrain of ‘The Show Goes On’ feels like a tip of the hat to Dylan. That isn’t to underestimate the lyrical power of this thoughtful song, however, which makes it considerably more than just a pastiche.
Ethan’s between song reminiscences while tuning his guitar are particularly revealing, especially those about how he and Ryan Adams sat in a Motel 8 drawing up a shortlist for the ‘Heartbreaker’ album. Johns’ incomprehension that the wonderful song, ‘Time (The Revelator)’ had failed to make the final cut – seeing as he’d originally received a recording of it from Adams – was only clarified when the latter confessed he hadn’t actually written it. The audience was also suitably impressed by the tale of how Johns and his drummer, Jeremy Stacey, were invited to record with Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers once the Tom Petty sideman decided to step out from his band leader’s shadows.
Tench had accumulated a vast amount of his own compositions over a 40 year period prior to recording the ‘You Should Be So Lucky’ album in 2013 and the august company in the recording studio for that record included Ringo Starr, Don Was, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. All this storytelling was by way of preamble to the harmonica inflected, Tench penned number, ‘Blonde Girl, Blue Dress,’ a song on which the Black Eyed Dogs really bare their teeth and one which Johns clearly takes huge delight in performing – “I just want to sing it all the time,” he says.
The harmonies contributed by the bluegrass duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings which added so much to ‘Blonde Girl, Blue Dress’ on the Benmont Tench album prove inspiration for the concluding song, a bluesy drawn out take of Gillian Welch’s ‘Time (The Revelator),’ one of the best numbers of the night, with Georgina Leach making a particularly impressive contribution on an extended fiddle solo. The band return to the stage for a quick encore with the upbeat, swinging ‘Red Rooster Blue’ and then we’re let loose into the cool night air.
Ethan Johns is clearly having immense fun with The Black Eyed Dogs and the fondness he has for his band members is evident throughout the performance – of Jeremy Stacey who’d flown straight in from a gig in Italy where he’d drummed the night before for King Crimson he said: “it wouldn’t be The Black Eyed Dogs without you.” It’s clear he also values the significant contributions from Georgina Leach on fiddle and Nick Pini on bass.
Unassuming and likeable wouldn’t be an unfair description of Ethan Johns and he’s happy to wear his influences lightly on his sleeve. While he’d never make any claims to be the ideal front man, he has an undeniable rapport with his audience, and the writing and musicianship more than complement his somewhat understated voice. While drummer Jeremy Stacey had to check his notes a few times as it’s been a couple of months since they’d played a live show together – and Johns admitted to the fact that the band were somewhat under rehearsed – it didn’t really show, and if anything, only added somewhat to the overall charm of the evening.
Tonight the emphasis was very much on fun and the fact Ethan Johns and The Black Eyed Dogs appear to be about making music simply for the sheer pleasure of it resulted in a performance which was organic, natural sounding and ultimately uplifting.
With special thanks to Barry Warren for his contribution to this review.