On Monday I went to see current homme du jour and 2008’s ‘next big thing’ Johnny Flynn. I am (obviously) not as up on the latest trends as some, so had only really heard the songs on his MySpace and read quite a bit of hype, but didn’t have much personal knowledge of the band. In true ‘ones to watch’ form, the audience was a trendy, indie kid kind of crowd…not the usual folk who frequent the kind of gigs I attend, in fact about half the average age! This was all hairbands and hoodies, designer labels and designer hair-dos.
First up were local (Newcastle) band Dot To Dots, who I had not heard of before…it seems that they have only been performing together for around six months to date. Dot To Dots are a five piece band, with the whole male/female singer combo going on, a cellist, and drums which were, initially, far too loud in comparison to the voices (although this is not their fault). They were certainly tuneful, but this really wasn’t anything exciting…lyrics were generally amateurish (e.g. “love is strong, our love is true”) and the harmonies came off sounding like The Beautiful South on a bad day.
Female vocalist Mags looked entirely miserable throughout, as did the cellist, Sarah (who tried her hand at xylophone, unsuccessfully, on one song…amazing that she can master the cello, yet it is too taxing to play the xylophone in time!). Co-lead vocalist Chris, on the other hand, seemed much more in the spirit, sounding a bit like Jake Shillingford from 90s band My Life Story (anyone remember them?) and was, to my mind, responsible for holding it all together. It’s early days for this band and I’m not sure that they have what it takes to shine through the masses of hopeful local indie groups but, as far as warm-up acts go, they really weren’t half bad.
On next was Jay Jay Pistolet. I was, at the outset, quite bemused by him turning up on stage, just one man and a guitar, as I had misread the flyer and was expecting Jay Jay and The Pistolets. Pistolet was much more chipper than our previous ‘entertainers’, and even got a laugh out of taking to the stage and announcing that he had only ever seen Newcastle on ‘Booze Britain’! This was pleasant, strumming, singer-songwriter stuff…again inoffensive, but nothing very special…each song sounding fairly similar to the last. And yet again some of the lyrics were spectacularly awful, e.g. “I promise you that I will make amends if you promise me you’ll always be my friend” and rhyming “Hollywood” with “Holly could”. In places he sounded a little bit Devendra Banhart (a sub-standard version, admittedly), and I wouldn’t complain if he appeared on a future billing, but wouldn’t rush out to catch him again either.
Last up it was, of course, Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit, who opened with their current single The Box (which you can download a live version of here). This was a great start, and things only got better as Flynn then picked up a banjo for the second song (Eyeless In Holloway). Bedecked in a checked flannel shirt, with floppy blonde hair and good looks (bordering on ‘foppish’), Flynn looked something like an 80s Neighbours bit-part. In fact, the South Africa-born, London-based Flynn is a trained Shakespearean actor (aged only 24!), and this really shows through in the lyrical content of his songs. The words here are witty and thoughtful (e.g. “a heart…the one I’ve got is shoddy, I need a brand new body” – seriously, this really worked), without being too ‘clever clever’ and somehow always keeping on the right side of silly or articulate-for-the-sake-of-articulate.
The sound is sometimes anti-folk ish (Flynn has spent some time on the New York anti-folk scene with the likes of Adam Green, Jeffrey Lewis and Regina Spektor), sometimes country-blues, with Flynn turning his hand to not only guitar and banjo, but mandolin and even trumpet! At times this band really reminded me of The Pogues (only less ravaged…and less Irish), and the Nick Drake references that have been bandied about are clear to see. But in other places ‘The Wits’ sounded more like a Carter Family-esque family band, with sister Lillie Flynn on chief harmonies, and with some Simon and Garfunkel style songwriting thrown into the mix.
The third song they played was upcoming single Leftovers (due to be released 25th February), which is a cracking good tune. Everything was ridiculously catchy, sounding like something you might hear at a barn dance or hoe-down…I never dance and was tapping my foot pretty much constantly throughout; even on the slower fourth song, to which we invited to “sway”. The tempo changed again for the fifth song of the set, for which Flynn picked up a fiddle (is there an instrument this fella hasn’t mastered? Perhaps the Dot To Dots should have thought about roping him in to accompany them on xylophone!) for a song about furrows, burrows, foxes and frocks that made me want to link arms with a stranger and dos-e-dos.
This was definite head-bobbing, toe-tapping music, and by last song Tickle Me Pink, which has a great beat (kudos to the drummer throughout, in fact) there really didn’t seem to be anyone who had not been completely won over. And, despite the earnestly style-conscious audience, there seemed to be no over-considered, purposeful trendiness on Flynn’s part.
Neither was there an encore, but I think that this was a wise call, as the band had already treated us enough, and it left us wanting more. A band that I would definitely recommend catching live if you can (this current tour continues into March, so if you live in the UK there may well be a gig near you...check MySpace for dates)…I am certainly a new convert!
Oh, and just in case you felt you needed to know, I can tell you that Johnny Flynn’s favourite type of biscuit is the custard cream…a good and humble choice, and one which you should bear in mind should he ever show up at your house for tea!