The scene was set for something slightly special as I descended the stairs towards the wood panelled bar at Cecil Sharp house this evening. The weather had turned – the wind was starting to kick up – and there was an air of expectation amongst the small crowd. I was standing, propped up against the bar, next to quite a famous comedian called Rufus Hound (of course, I played it cool and made one or two wise cracks) but we were all here to see John Smith, standing alone, in the corner of the bar with his acoustic guitar and no amplification. Appropriate in this most intimate of places, the home of UK folk music.
Smith treated us to a short but brilliant set of tasters from his new album, ‘Hummingbird’. It was almost as if the music was supposed to be played this way as the small and silent crowd feasted on the distinctive voice of one of folk’s more distinguished stars. Only one of his original compositions, ‘Hummingbird’, featured in the set, which was jam-packed with reworkings of English and US folk songs. Even without an in-depth knowledge of the traditional folk canon, this was something special. The songs were accompanied the usual intense storytelling that accompanies all of Smith’s performances including his story of how he first met Wiz Jones at the Green Man Festival. His virtuoso finger picking style was on display in ‘Lowlands of Holland’ where, at one point, he swapped quickly between plectrum and finger play and then back again. There was a wistful interpretation of ‘Willy Moore’ and his rendition of ‘Mountain Axe Revisited’ was short but a fine illustration of powerful storytelling. The crowd heard the power of his voice, without amplification, flowing from tender touch to a gruff folk- roar within the same song. Smith’s voice is a melange of both tenderness and the traditional sound of a man who clearly understands his musical roots.
The standout song from the set, however, was a rendition of ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’, a song which Smith holds dear, this version inspired by John Renbourne and also by his father, who played the song to him when he was a child, it was also the inspiration for ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, from Dylan’s 1963 album ‘Freewheeling’. This seafaring tale was sung beautifully by Smith and the higher tones of his voice stood out as he regaled the audience with this icy tale of lost and stranded sailor explorers. The set ended wistfully with a short song ‘The Time has Come’ by Anne Briggs with Smith explaining that he had just returned from Nashville, was jet lagged and couldn’t wait to sleep in his own bed, the small crowd would never have known. Sadly, the night was over before it had even begun, but it was a very respectable insight into the album ‘Hummingbird’ which promises to be every bit as masterful as his previous two releases.