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I am unsure whether James Mathe played his own material or whether I just turned up too late to miss his performance as Anna Calvi was setting up just as I had purchased a beer from the bar. I find something intimidating about a woman who is excellent on a guitar as Anna’s slight frame seemed almost dwarfed by her telecaster which she put into expert use as she began her set with some beautiful solo guitar. The dark atmospheric romanticism of her music seemed fitting for the dim atmosphere of the Cabaret Voltaire. ‘Blackout’ seemed to be definitely popular amongst the crowd as red tainted lips uttered confident vocals and ‘Marionette’ was a personal favourite with the use of a vintage harmonium giving the song an enchanting Parisian feel. Definitely one of the better support acts I have seen for a band.
As the bare faced youngster descended the steps to the stage the crowd were met with a cheeky smile and a somewhat shy ‘hello’ before breaking into the first song of the evening, ‘Box’. It’s hard to imagine from looking at him that he’s twenty six although the maturity of his vocals warrants some form of justification. When the London-based performer descended on us with his 2008 album ‘A Larum’ we were introduced to his distinctive vocals and acoustic guitar which set him firmly in the London nu-folk scene along with ‘Laura Marling’ and ‘Noah and The Whale’. Now almost two years on with new material only being released as a short EP in the form of ‘Sweet William’ in November, it’s a treat as Johnny alternates his set between new and old songs the former set for a release as an album in May.
Merely listening to his records it’s hard to appreciate his talent as he constantly switches from guitar, to mandolin, to banjo, to violin, to trumpet playing each with equal precision and dexterity whilst at the same time delivering stunning vocals. The addition of his band ‘The Sussex Wit’ greatly added to the overall atmosphere with some fantastic cello from Joe Zeitlin and backing vocals from James Mathe. The alteration between noticeably upbeat songs such as ‘Tickle Me Pink’ and ‘Eyeless In Holloway’ where the crowd began to start bopping against more sombre numbers such as ‘Brown Trout Blues’ was particularly effective.
It seems easy to attribute Johnny’s popularity and the fact that he is selling out venues up and down the country due to his blond hair and public school boy good looks as could be suggested from the female heavy makeup of the audience although this is more probably just jealousy on my part as the combination of his poetic lyrics delivered with a stunning voice against a striking mix of folk and blues instrumentals is something really to be admired.