You were once a shining ocean

Shawn Smith was back in town this week, concluding his solo tour of the UK. He was last here just over two years ago with Brad; this tour gave him the chance to play live songs he’s written as a solo artist and as part of Satchel, as well as some Brad classics.

The gig was at Bush Hall, an enchanting venue that’s retained its Edwardian air, with its elegant candelabra and stuccoed interior. It’s a venue well-suited to folky stuff – as the carpeted floor suggested* – and the likes of Laura Marling and Van Morrison have played there in times past. The acoustics are great too, very warm and full.

Support came from Up Down Go Machine. I caught the second half of their set: acoustic folk with excellent harmonies, the percussionist ably propelling and filling out songs that may otherwise have sounded a tad flimsy live. The singer reminded me at times of Glen Hansard, albeit a less intense version.**

A deft lyricist with a fine ear for poignant and poetic phrases, Smith was accompanied by his keyboards only, and his set was a chance both to give his quieter, more introspective songs an airing, and also to play stripped down versions of some of his other material.

Opening with ‘Suffering’, the closing track from Satchel’s EDC and one of his finest compositions, Smith followed it up with ‘Some Never Come Home’ from Brad’s Interiors. In an intimate venue the latter produced an emotionally charged performance from Smith: before playing the latter he revealed that the song, about dying, was in part written about Layne Staley several years before he finally succumbed to his heroin addiction; something that Smith thought Staley himself would have found ghoulishly funny.

Shawn Smith at Bush Hall 2

Although some of the material may, in less capable hands, have drifted into mawkishness, Smith never allowed this to happen; although nervous at the start, he engaged his audience with wry, gentle humour, on several songs orchestrating backing vocals from the crowd and teasing them when they slipped up in the arrangement. Highlights of the set for me included ‘Screen’, a neglected gem from Shame; ‘Crown of Thorns’, arranged for a bluesy open D (I think) acoustic guitar; and a cheeky take on ‘Purple Rain’ – a Prince influence has manifested itself in his recorded output in the likes of ‘Built 4 It’, with its funky, scratchy guitar line and falsetto vocals.

Although all the songs sounded strong in their basic arrangements, occasionally the value of their full-band compositions – and the input from other band members – was noticeable by its absence; it didn’t detract from the gig, nor from Smith’s performance, but it led one to appreciate more, for example, Stone Gossard’s understated guitar line on ‘The Day Brings’ and how it complements and develops what’s essentially a piano-driven song.

Having a swift post-gig drink in the bar afterwards, Richard and I had the chance to meet Shawn briefly and he kindly agreed to have his photo taken with each of us.

Shawn Smith at Bush Hall 3

The photo looks like I’m in the Grunge Hall at Madame Tussauds (it’s only a matter of time…), but it was a chance to round off the evening by thanking Smith for a gig it was a rare privilege to attend.

Setlist: Suffering, Some Never Come Home, Screen, Wrapped in My Memory, Crown of Thorns (guitar version), Buttercup, Not Too Late, Isn’t That Right, The Day Brings, Purple Rain, Crown of Thorns (piano version)**

* Carpets at the few rock venues brave enough to install them tend to be weak-lager-sodden, chewing-gum-supported affairs hosting a doubtless scientifically fascinating range of microscopic life. Older carpets have smothered some of this natural life with fag ash too. Nice.
** But this may say more about my lack of knowledge about folkier singers than anything else.
*** This is the setlist from the gig two nights before, as I can’t find one yet for the Bush Hall gig, but it looks right to me from memory.


About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

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