John Smith at the Centre For Contemporary Arts, 12/04/24

The folk hero rides high in Glasgow following the release of The Living Kind

You might not have come across John Smith before. Raised in Devon, and steeped in US and UK folk traditions, he’s a charismatic singer-songwriter with filigree guitar skills, an ever-expanding pool of thoughtful tunes and a voice like a deep drink of beer. Once you see him play, however, you won’t forget it.

Having perfected his sound in folk clubs and pubs through the 2000s, Smith has worked his way up to selling out mid-range venues like the CCA. Now on his seventh album, The Living Kind, it’s as if he’s on a mission to win over the masses song by song, show by show. He doesn’t disappoint tonight.

It’s a gentle start, with new efforts ‘The World Turns’, ‘Dividing Line’ and ‘Horizons’ picked out delicately on electric guitar with a tuneful reverb that makes it sound like he’s accompanying himself. Frankly, such is Smith’s quiet virtuosity, you wouldn’t put it past him. 

These are warm, wise songs about leaving when you want to stay, or vice-versa. Mostly, he’s content to let them do the talking, but his talking’s pretty good too. “Risky business opening a can during a gig,” he deadpans when someone dares to break the reverent silence. “So you can sing, eh?” he offers after some respectful audience participation. “And dance!” shouts a lone voice from the crowd. You can see why he loves playing Glasgow.

Things intensify as he picks up an acoustic for the wistful heartbreak of ‘Hummingbird’, the woozy, boozy ‘Sanctuary’, and ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’, which sounds even prettier live. Considering the recorded version is a duet with Lisa Hannigan, that’s some feat. 

Though only a decade old, ‘Great Lakes’ feels like a long-lost entry from the great American songbook. Entreating and intimate, ‘Save My Life’ might be the closest he comes to writing a pop song. Tonight he teases out new, bluesy dynamics from both, his voice swelling from a whisper to a roar.

Older fans may miss the drama of ‘Axe Mountain’ and ‘Winter’, but there’s compensation in new songs such as the gorgeous ‘Too Good To Be True’, a comparatively rowdy ‘The Living Kind’, and the pin-drop loveliness of set closer ‘Lily’. 

He comes back briefly for two old favourites: the jaunty, shanty-inspired ‘Salty And Sweet’, and ‘Far Too Good’, which ends with a series of notes that rise so sharply it scarcely sounds possible, even as Smith barely breaks a sweat. 

Perhaps that’s the key. He makes it all look effortless, like singing and playing and writing so beautifully is the most natural thing in the world. If he can dance too, everyone else may as well give up. 

John Smith continues his tour in Southampton and Kendal in April, before playing Limerick in May. Find tickets here