REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on John Smith and Native Harrow, Pocklington Arts Centre, April 5

John Smith: “Great balm for a spring Tuesday”. Picture: Paul Rhodes

JOHN Smith has a slippers-and-onesie type of voice; soft, comforting and a little frayed around the edges. Performing solo, this long-postponed gig was a great balm for a spring Tuesday.

As other have noticed before, Smith’s voice does sound like John Martyn (in his mid- Seventies prime before his lifestyle destroyed it). You could imagine Martyn covering Town To Town, a memorable travelling hangover of a song.

Smith, as his name denotes, is a songwriter with the common touch. As is often the case for songwriters who emerge from the folk scene and then seek to take the middle ground, Smith’s earlier material was the most striking.

Hummingbird was wonderful, as was the encore Winter, played with his guitar on his lap. Many of the newer songs were less memorable. Not all, as Star Crossed Lovers proved, thanks to its more unusual arrangement (and even better on record with Lisa Hannigan guesting). Smith is looking to regain the momentum he was developing pre-pandemic, but his style relies on not trying too hard, and tonight he pulled this off with aplomb.

For performers unaccustomed to this East Yorkshire town, the intensity of the audience’s silence while listening can come as a shock. Smith seemed worried that he’d lost the room by joking about other counties.

He needn’t have fretted, as the near sell-out crowd were quietly but determinedly on his side. With his humorous, wry between-song banter, and hilarious way of dealing with false starts, he took the show firmly in hand and steered it to a successful finale.

Native Harrow: “Would have been worthy headliners in their own right”. Picture: Paul Rhodes

Before all that, Native Harrow played a very welcome opening set. After the musical imagination on display on their 2020 album Closeness, their pared-back set seemed a little spartan. Some of the more standout moments from the record were absent, Smoke Burns and Shake most obviously, so the set didn’t exactly grab you by your lapels.

The husband-and-wife duo of Devin Tuel and Stephen Hams have a more subtle approach, and would have been worthy headliners in their own right.

Tuel has a beautiful voice that she uses to supreme effect. In dress, and perhaps in musical style, Carole King or Judee Sill would be influences, but as she said at the interval, the heart music of Tim Buckley was at play too.

Turn Turn could have sat, broodingly, on Buckley’s Blue Afternoon album. Hams’ fluid bass and elegant guitar work embellished skilfully, all in the service of the song. Their songcraft has grown better and better over their four albums to date and their career also seems on the upswing. Hopefully both acts will return soon.

Review by Paul Rhodes