John Smith’s biggest failing is printed prominently on the artwork of each of his three albums; type his name into Google and you will need to rummage through the debris in order to find him. But it is still worth doing so, because (it is still worth saying), despite the cliché, the Devonshire songwriter’s common name belies a truly uncommon talent.
John Renbourn once described him as ‘the future of folk music’, and while his first two records demonstrated a promising young talent, it is only on his third, Great Lakes, that he achieves something quietly spectacular.
I was fortunate enough to see him early in his career, in 2006, supporting a gout-afflicted John Martyn, who was wheeled on stage to perform Solid Air to a room full of abrasive, liquored-up folkies. Smith was colourfully heckled then for ‘too much f**king chat’ – an occupational hazard for an artist who uses as many different tunings as he has songs.
Sitting in a sell-out audience in London’s South Bank Centre last week, those same men and women who had come to see ‘Johnny Boy’ all those years ago now listened to the humble, self-effacing Smith in reverent silence. It was a performance of real delicacy and beauty, to which the audience showed their appreciation with a deafening generosity.
Great Lakes is a turning point in a career that no longer shows promise, but fulfills it. Smith spent much of the last year supporting the likes of Lisa Hannigan and Richard Hawley on their world tours, and Hannigan lends her vocals to the album’s single, Salty And Sweet. But whilst a welcome feature, it isn’t so much the additional voice that make Great Lakes such a rich album.
Like some of the best folk music, as important as what you hear is what you don’t; its clear, understated production leaves space for Smith’s elegant finger-picking to mingle with Jon Thorne’s ever-expressive bass. Shut your eyes on the brilliant England Rolls Away or the opening verse of She Is My Escape and the partnership’s creative powers quietly tumble over you. The results are eerie and sublime, channelling the ghost of John Martyn and Danny Thompson.
For all its nuance though, Great Lakes doesn’t shy away from taking things up a level. The inclusion of drums and a more extensive use of strings and layered vocals than on Smith’s previous albums allow the songs to swell when necessary, propelling his “honey-graveled” voice (as his PR accurately describes it) into new depths of emotion and peaks of narrative refrain.
This is an album of many voices and faces. It is a marriage of technical ability and accessible songwriting; of melancholy and joy; of politics (hinted at) and love (overt). Standing astride the worlds of folk music old and new, Great Lakes has much to be thankful for. With it, John Smith has created a real thing of beauty, and the music is its own reward.