I had never been to the iconic venue of The Union Chapel until last night. And what a way to lose my virginity… Surrounded by such historic beauty visually, it is only right that your ears should pay host to something truly special. And that is exactly what John Smith treated us to. To be honest, I was completely overwhelmed and captivated by both the venue, and the music that was played.
Opening the evening is The Lake Poets, aka “just Martin…. I do have a band, but I couldn’t afford to bring them with me”. Well, band or not, The Lake Poet(s) seems to manage just fine on his own and succeeds in getting the night off to a wonderfully charming start. Despite his endearing modesty, with songs ranging from ones about friends who were “a bit of a knob” to heart-breakingly emotive tales of loss and the hardships of growing up in the industrial North-East, Martin woos the crowd and tugs at the heart strings with ease. One track that particularly strikes a chord for me is ‘North View’ – a song about “my grandma who died of Alzeimer’s”, her life as an orphan and consequent fear of loneliness. As the first few earnest lyrics are uttered, I find myself welling up as I too had a Grandmother who passed away in similar circumstances…. (Note to self, always bring tissues when attending beautifully emotive gigs alone.) Despite the tissue-seeking moments, however, it is only excitement that I am left feeling at the end of The Lake Poets’ set; being able to write such genuinely heart-felt lyrics and pristine folky melodies at such a young age, it seems that big things lay in store for this Sunderland lad. And having already had songs such as ‘Rain’ played on BBC6 Music and Radio 1 (“I don’t know how that happened…” Martin assures us) and having played at T in The Park, and now this legendary venue, I am sure that The Lake Poets will soon be getting the recognition he deserves, and maybe his band will be able to tour with him next time…
As the bearded, waistcoated John Smith takes to the stage, The Union Chapel fills with a wave of applause and awe. And rightly so. Accompanied by his band, consisting of cello, fiddle, double bass and drums, Smith belts out an intensely moving, spectacularly spellbinding set. With each immaculately crafted song interspersed with Smith’s witty banter and down-to-earth friendly dialogue with the crowd, a truly enjoyable evening is sure to be had by all. Smith has an entertaining story behind many songs which – whilst not taking away from the intensely moving nature of the music – brings you back down to earth with a welcome, gentle bump. As he introduces ‘Long Way For A Woman’, for example, he explains how it was one of the few songs he has written whilst on tour, about a woman. “but she’s dead to me now…”: as this is greeted by giggles from the crowd, he reassures us that he “didn’t mean it to sound that harsh!”. Conversely, other songs are simply delivered with no explanation, with Smith’s impassioned lyrical storytelling saying it all, his powerfully gruff vocals transporting you into his emotive tales of romance and nostalgia. He delivers each story with a clarity and sensitivity, maintaining an intense subtle power that takes a hold of each and every one of us seated in the chapel. And, when the dulcet tones of Lisa Hannigan join him on stage for ‘Salty and Sweet’, their smooth harmonies sit perfectly together.
Paying host to a range of talents, such as the bluesy slide guitar of ‘Town to Town’ or the skilful ‘lap-tapping’ of ‘Winter’, there is not a dull moment to be had when Smith is on stage. I could listen to him play, sing and talk forever: whether he’s singing exceptionally lovely songs of love with pretty lyrics – “Let’s love and let’s do loving well…” (‘She’s My Escape’) – or simply sharing his view of the state of the music industry today – “I just go round and play gigs, and you come to them, and that – to me – is the music industry” – this man never fails to entertain. Despite the generic name – whilst reminiscent of other folky crooners such as Ray Lamontagne, James Vincent Mcmorrow or even Dave Matthews – Smith remains entirely exceptional in his ability to move and compel.
Unlike other gigs in churches that I’ve been to, Smith has clearly researched the venue and appears to flawlessly fit into his surroundings. He effectively uses the acoustics of the chapel to his advantage, delivering music with an impressive dynamic range and treating us to bursts of impassioned acapella that send shivers down my spine. He thus succeeds in creating an ethereal and captivating set that is not only hauntingly atmospheric and magical, but candidly enjoyable. The two standing ovations were most certainly well-deserved.