The first thing I noticed about Shawn Smith, as he took to the intimate stage at Birmingham’s Medicine Bar last night, was how much he looked like a young Dr. John who had forgotten to have a haircut in the last ten years. To be honest, it was probably the hat that emphasised the comparison, yet they both have their own unique and distinctive vocal style which means the listener can recognise them from the minute they open their mouths. Shawn Smith is the prolific vocal and creative driving force behind a number of bands over the past fifteen years or so, namely Brad, Pigeonhed and Satchel; however he is still seen as “Seattle’s best kept secret”. He released his latest solo album, ‘The Diamond Hand’, last month and has embarked on a mini tour of Britain, which has resulted in a sell out date in London. Unfortunately, Birmingham’s crowd were not large in numbers, yet they were large in appreciation with some people travelling all the way from Cardiff to catch the show.
The only instrument on stage was a keyboard set up, covered by a black cloth with a feather boa trim to shroud a wealth of tricks. Music was provided by Steve Gerrard, keeping the atmosphere suitably chilled whilst the audience wait patiently for Shawn’s arrival. As he entered, I realised just how personal this gig was going to be, especially after attending Nick Cave’s sell out show the previous night. Shawn Smith made the night informal, and it was more like a friend playing to a group of mates. Smith opens the performance with a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ accompanied with a selection of fantastical keyboard effects resulting in his joking that he can play no-handed! He proceeded to launch into ‘The Day Brings’, taken from Brad’s ‘Interiors’ album, which translated brilliantly into its broken down state. Throughout the gig, Smith adapted songs without fear of playing a discordant accompaniment and or singing an obscure vocal line, all with a wry smile on his face. Shawn Smith’s songs all have a haunting quality which is reiterated by his powerful yet unashamedly delicate vocals, and as he brought to our attention, most of his songs are about people dying which led him to dedicate a song to the late, great Layne Staley from Alice in Chains.
The set progressed through tracks, old and new, despite a confession that there was no set list and Smith was playing songs he could remember. The interaction and banter with the audience continued encouraging us to feel a part of the performance and a closeness which you don’t get with many artists. The highlight of the set was ‘Screen’, which was heightened by the stark arrangement, and a cover version of Mother Love Bone’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ which was utterly mesmerising. Smith completed an awesome journey with a poignant ending, ‘Buttercup’, which resulted in utter silence throughout the crowd. For a well needed double encore, we were treated to a number of tracks starting with a cover of ‘Purple Rain’ and more of Shawn’s humour, ultimately segueing back to ‘The Day Brings’. For want of a better clichÃ©, Smith had the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout the gig, because he is an amazing vocalist, talented songwriter, accomplished keyboardist and all round good guy. And a selfish part of me hopes he stays “Seattle’s best kept secret”, so I can keep seeing him perform in small, intimate venues.
Review – Toni Woodward
Photos – Steve Gerrard