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Review: John Smith

PUBLISHED: 11:09 31 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 29 October 2010

Rob Garratt

You would be hard-pressed to find a more common name than John Smith; but there was nothing run-of-the-mill about this man's music. He is entrenched in British folk traditions, a warrier keeping the old forms alive.

Norwich Arts Centre

You would be hard-pressed to find a more common name than John Smith; but there was nothing run-of-the-mill about this man's music.

Tutored under the watchful eye of legendary folk giant John Martyn, who passed away to considerable fanfare little over a year ago, Smith is entrenched in the British folk traditions; a warrior keeping the old forms alive.

Opening his UK tour in Norwich, early on in the gig he told the audience of two single themes in his music; death and romance.

With an oh-so-subtle double bassist in the wings, Smith coaxed weird and wonderful noises from his six and 12-string guitars; hypnotic finger-picking, percussive stabbing and delicate harmonics.

Smith's gravelly vocal recalls American blues-folk star Kelly Joe Phelps, its soaring howl wrenching at the heartstrings with sniper rifle precision.

“I recorded this one in a toilet in Texas,” Smith declares before unleashing another beauty - a pretty rock n' roll statement for a man who shares his name with a household brand of beer. But then his latest album, Map Or Direction, was apparently recorded under bridges, in forests and in motel rooms.

His showtune, Winter, was wheeled out as a encore; Smith's guitar lying horizontally on his lap while he tapped the body and strings methodically; the instrument transformed into something between a drum and a xylophone.

I last heard this jaw-dropping performance when I bustled into one of John Martyn's final gigs, late, to catch the last song in Smith's support set. The hypnotic tapping sounded as fresh as it did five years ago.

Modern folk often bears little in common with its tavern-rocking, traditional jaunts, and has been stripped back to shameless melancholy, crafted to pull at the emotions.

But with Smith the effect is so subtle and naked, stripped back and raw, that it has a goosebump-inducing intensity only the best vocal music can claim.

Support came from local ukulele-strumming funny man Tim Clare, whose amusing wit was the perfect antidote to Smith's serious, heavy music.

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