Ethan Johns – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 19th February 2013
Set between Parkways cabs and the Abu Bakar supermarket amidst row upon row of red brick Victorian terraced houses, this rather unprepossessing building could just as easily be Coronation Street in Weatherfield as it is Queens Road in Hyde Park. Equally it could be the Phoenix Club in Farnworth, as it is the Brudenell Social Club. Originally formed as a gentleman’s social and recreational club, it has served the local community with cheap booze, bingo and cabaret for one hundred years and its great musical tradition has been passed on down the line to the point where it stands today at the very heart of the Leeds music scene. The Brudenell has played host to scores and scores of notable people in the past and one look at the posters adorning the walls of the club’s entrance gives you some indication as to the quality and diversity of acts that it continues to attract. Mama Rosin, Caitlin Rose, Tall Ships, Johnny Marr, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Republica, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Space will all be performing in the venue’s 300 capacity main function room over the next few weeks. It is a jewel in the West Yorkshire crown.
In keeping with many such evenings, tonight showcases three individual artistes all of whom, albeit very loosely, are thematically linked together. This triad of performers may all set sail under the folk flag of convenience but as the evening unfolds and as their individual courses diverge this is clearly a far too simplistic musical generalisation. Starting proceedings is Ellen Smith. Shorn of her Escapades and thus appearing even more diminutive on the Brudenell’s empty stage, she confesses to feeling terrified. For her, then, fear must be her very best friend because her performance was truly inspired. She opened with This Ace I’ve Burned from her band’s debut album, the sonorous tremolo of her voice enunciating every single one of its lovelorn words. Accompanied only by her guitar and harmonica, the aching fragility, uncertainty and inner strength of her being are held in a perfect balance that seems to have been magnified both by the absence of her band mates and the spellbound silence in which the audience is held. New song I Just Can’t Love You Any More continued this reflection of an apparent dichotomy between susceptibility and surety, whilst the rising vibrato of her voice on the concluding Nowhere Man was nothing short of spellbinding. Quite why this woman is not a bigger star shall have to remain as a mystery for a little while longer.
Brighton singer-songwriter Marika Hackman appears to recognize that her songs do not perhaps possess the wider emotional range, the light and shade if you will, of those of her predecessor this evening. Whilst her music is cut from a far darker cloth and she does navigate a narrower passage through a more raw form of madness, she soon points out that beneath this sombre exterior she is actually a happy person. Last year’s double A-Sided single Mountain Spines and You Come Down both possess strangely beguiling, hypnotic elements that draw you the listener into their mood more than their sentiment to the point whereby you reach the valedictory Here I Lie in a trance-like state not quite realising how you had got there. Different journeys Hackman and Smith may have taken, but both embark at a point of deep satisfaction.
Ethan Johns is heralded as a record producer, engineer and mixer before anything else that he may do and his worth in this regard is measured across the credits on numerous album sleeves from the Kings of Leon to Tom Jones. Though he did release his debut solo album in November of last year, he is less well known as a writer of songs and musician. But despite If Not Now Then When being hewn from a wood of folk, rock and blues and his enlisting the help of friends such as Laura Marling and Ryan Adams it all sounds strangely conventional and will not be pulling up any trees in its own right. But you place Ethan Johns and these songs on this stage tonight and he is absolutely compelling. With his dark suit and long beard and looking as if he has just stepped off the cover of The Band’s eponymous second album, he presents a striking figure. And he communicates this commanding presence through his music, drawing you into each and every song by a quiet stealth. Corrina, Corrina is mesmerising; The Turning, where he is accompanied by guitar and an old analogue tape machine and despite his singing that ‘we all know the future and the future knows us all’, the song manages to place you in some long forgotten past; and the simple yet enchanting melody of the album’s concluding The Long Way Round played in public is really quite beautiful.
Once again the Brudenell had woven together a delicate musical tapestry wherein three people from different sets of circumstance had shared their time and vision with us. That the evening was such an unqualified success says much about their individual talent, but in saying that you also strongly suspect that it may not have been either so unique or so perfect if it had been experienced elsewhere.