Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, Live review, Shepherd’s Bush Empire


10 December 2010

Johnny Flynn arrives in Shepherd’s Bush hovering somewhere between a commercial breakthrough and relative obscurity, a state in which he nevertheless has no trouble selling out the Empire. His second album, Been Listening, was released in March and features on many album of the year lists, or at least the more folk-inclined ones. It’s a glorious record, building on the exceptional songwriting of his debut, A Larum, to deliver a selection of tracks with serious depth and serious catchiness. The crowd are clearly excited at the prospect of hearing twice as much material as on his time he toured, and greet him with a roar.

The Sussex Wit (a fantastic band name absent from ‘Been Listening’, but fortunately returned for this tour) are guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They briefly impersonate a standard line-up before Flynn trades his guitar with the bassist, and then during the course of the gig plays successively the trumpet, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle.  The band opens with ‘Lost and Found’, a track that links the articulate, reflective songs on A Larum to the more varied, cinematic fare of Been Listening. It is a beautiful song, the refrain “Just a lonely radio, just a makeshift show and tell” generating the atmosphere of robust melancholy that is so suited to Flynn’s strong but vulnerable voice. Next ‘Kentucky Pill’, which opens the second album, takes Flynn into new territory, with its lyrics located firmly across the pond, and its banjo-fired stomp going down a storm.

By the time Flynn picks up his trumpet and plays the ‘Last Post’-esque opening bars of ‘Hong Kong Protestant Cemetery’, the gig is going like a dream. Flynn and the Wit have a full, rounded live sound which they use to give their already exciting songs a real edge. They play as a very tight unit indeed, with a confidence and professionalism that makes them seem like old hands, not the young and extremely talented musicians they in fact are. ‘Hong Kong’ is the only crowd-pleasing reflection on British colonial military history you’re ever likely to hear, demonstrating exactly what’s so remarkable about Flynn’s music: highly sophisticated songs with very good tunes.

The gig just keeps on getting better. First comes ‘Been Listening’, an album highlight which features gorgeous, wailing guitar. Then ‘Leftovers’, a love song about sloppy sectors with an irresistible, rumbling chorus. And then Johnny is joined by his sister Lillie, a sometime band member, to sing harmony on current single ‘Barnacled Warship’, a fabulous romp of a song stoked by a fiddle riff that surely has Dave Swarbrick signing pacts with the Devil. The crowd love Lillie, and the brother/sister dynamic works a treat on this and subsequent songs, not least ‘Cold Bread’ on which she also plays flute.

But if they love Lillie, they go wild when Laura Marling comes on duet on ‘The Water. The song is remarkable through its sheer simplicity. Flynn has the confidence to strip his arsenal of sounds right back, surely presaging the next phase in his career in which he has the talent to write some very good songs indeed. However, his triumphant duet with Marling also highlights the difficulties he faces. For all the unparalleled quality of his writing, it is lesser contemporaries such as Mumford and Sons who have reaped the greater rewards, while Flynn was dumped by his record label after A Larum and now juggles music with acting to make ends meet. The Shepherd’s Bush audience made more significantly more noise for Marling than for Flynn, unconsciously commenting on their contrasting career trajectories. Until Johnny Flynn receives the recognition he deserves, the best songwriter of his generation is being done a serious disservice.