Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit took to the stage on Friday night to deliver a forceful and rousing performance, drawing from old and new material alike, which more than filled the appropriately capacious and lofty setting of St John at Hackney Church.
The church was, in fact, the perfect setting. Minimal staging and lights meant that the focus was wholly on the music. For a band who seem to draw inspiration from the musical roots, traditions and history of the UK, performing in such a historically significant venue seemed especially poignant and entirely appropriate.
Opening with ‘Raising the Dead’, the first single from the new album ‘Sillion’, before swiftly reinvigorating ‘Lost and Found’ from the 2010 album ‘Been Listening’, Flynn and the band established the theme for the rest of the evening; this wasn’t going to simply be a chance to hear the new album performed live, but rather a journey through the band’s back catalogue. Moving seamlessly between old and new, Flynn not only demonstrated the progression of the band’s sound, but also enabled this sound to filter back into their older material, rendering it as something new – the same, recognisable songs, but somehow different. A tangible example of this was the performance of ‘Howl’, also from ‘Been Listening’. Already an energetic track, it became a highly charger powerhouse, with the electrified guitar scorching under Flynn’s boisterous trumpet playing.
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Perhaps the best example of the evolution of the band’s sound was in their performance of ‘The Landlord’, arguable one of the strongest tracks from the new album. It came roaring into life after the decidedly less energetic, but no less enjoyable ‘Brown Trout Blues’, and invigorated the audience with an oscillating guitar, before exploding into a 1980s era Dire Straits-esque roots rock sensation. Just like Bob Dylan so famously did in 1965, Flynn and the band have truly embraced electric on ‘Sillion’. It stands in stark contrast to their last album, ‘Country Mile’, which was at its core an exploration of habitual folk tradition. Flynn himself said this was the first time they had played ‘The Landlord’ live, and he was nervous to do so. Such nerves were misplaced, as the performance displayed perfectly the bands undoubtedly flourishing sound.
Flynn anticipated the mood of the crowd well, recognising that the old favourites needed to make an appearance. As such, the set list was made up of key tracks plucked from across the spectrum of his previous work. Well known numbers such as ‘The Box’, ‘Tickle Me Pink’ and ‘Cold Bread’ were played, with the band making each sounding fresh and novel in their own way. ‘The Water’ seemed to resonate especially with the audience, and although there was no surprise appearance from Laura Marling, Lily Flynn’s rendering of the female vocals was beautifully ethereal, intertwining perfectly with her brother’s voice. As everyone in the audience sang along, the song took on a (fittingly) hymn like quality as it lifted up to the rafters and filled the space of the church.
One of the most arresting performances of the night come when Flynn returned for the first song of the encore. Standing solo on the stage, the song was ‘Heart Sunk Hank’, the second single released from ‘Sillion’. Whilst on the album the song starts and ends with the crackle of an old record spinning in the player, live, this effect was stripped back, and the focus was on the pensive lyrics; ‘This one goes out west to Heart Sunk Hank/Got stuck in the rungs of the ladder of his rank.’ It was a sombre moment, and as Flynn’s mournful delivery resonated through the church, the crowd were truly captivated in the beautifully melancholic tale he was weaving.
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Listening to Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit perform ‘Sillion’ and ‘A Larum’, and all of the albums in between was almost like listening to a completely new set of unheard songs. When rendered live, they took on a completely different character. The many instrumental layers which make up the tracks were elaborated and embellished upon, making some more discernible, and allowing the listener to appreciate previously overlooked elements. This combined with the seemingly effortless shifts between spiritual folk and riotous electric made for a truly engaging performance which charted not only the evolution of the band itself but also allowed listeners to look back at existing work and appreciate it with a new, slightly different ear.