It’s hard not to equate a gig to a spiritual experience when it takes place in a church. The acoustics are perfect, the audience is rapt, and the lighting is usually simple, but effective. This was the case when Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit took the stage at St. John at Hackney. This is the only time I will mention this hackneyed metaphor, because what Flynn and his band delivered wasn’t divine or heavenly: it was human. Real, down to earth musical talent that just so happened to take place in a holy space.
The set list was comprised of old classics and more recent material. It was clear that the die-hard fans had already memorised the words to the newer songs. Yet, even during the most well known ones, the audience sing-along wasn’t as overwhelming as one might expect. Whether out of respect for Flynn, or simply wanting to hear his dulcet singing, not the kid next to you, one can’t be too sure. The few moments where the audience let loose came during ‘Tickle Me Pink’ (who can’t resist singing along at the top of your lungs to “when you’re dead”?) and ‘Brown Trout Blues’, where Flynn let the audience take over for the last hurrah of “I know what I’m called, it’s just you got me, you got me stoned”.
There was little banter with the audience. The few “thank yous” he spoke were genuine, as if he too couldn’t quite believe he was there. It’s this sincerity that shines through in his music, which is what gathers such an eclectic gathering – rumour had it Geoffry Rush and John Malkovich were there (not together).
When you listen to Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit on recording, you tend to forget how many moving pieces there are to each song. Live, however, one can witness the myriad talents of his band. The harmonies were provided by his sister Lillie Flynn and Holly Holden (who opened the night with Holly Y Su Banda) but they also turned their hands to accordion, percussion, piano, and more.
The other band members, who seemed to spill out over the stage, played more percussion, more piano, bass, güiro, and a variety of other instruments whose names not even a Google search can conjure up. All together, the sound was nothing short of impressive. Whilst this edges towards proving Aristotle right (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts), when Flynn came back onstage for his solo performance, the audience was indeed rapt. He is the man we all came to see.
From classics off of The Wrote and The Writ (like the eponymous track, and ‘Cold Bread’) to the more melancholy songs off of Been Listening (‘The Water’, ‘Lost and Found’), to material from the newest and perhaps heaviest album Sillion (‘Raising the Dead’, ‘Wandering Aengus’, ‘Barleycorn’, ‘The Night My Piano Upped and Died’, and more) the audience were treated to a solid hour and a half of music.
Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit lost neither stamina, or devotion to what they were there to do. You have to see them live to understand why they’ve already sold out their New York City show. Flynn and his band are a step ahead of the rest of the ‘scene’, but despite their soaring popularity, they remain true to their sincerest of endeavours – to deliver incredible music.