Steve Gunn – Unitarian Church, Brighton (7th April 2017)

When Steve Gunn lasted visited Brighton back in November it was under a very different context to tonight’s performance. Last time he played to a small but packed club backed by a tight, talented band.  Though frequently thrown in with the folk/singer-songwriter lot, that night Gunn and band had an almost vicious energy to them; fuzz pedals and wah solos order of the day. Tonight sees Gunn return to Brighton a little shy of five months later. It’s not a long enough gap for Gunn to have written many new songs, therefore the contents of the set are largely the same as last time. If that would usually be a disappointment then it’s a non-issue tonight, as Gunn sheds a whole new light on his songs.

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Taking the stage armed with two acoustic guitars – alone this time – the difference is immediately obvious. Totally shedding the fuzz and feedback of his last UK tour, Gunn insteads trades in a gentle ambience and mellow easyness tonight. It’s a show tailor made for the venue – Brighton’s Unitarian Church. A small room with a seated capacity surely no larger than 100, it’s undoubtedly a venue made – when not used as a receptacle of prayer – for the relaxed, winding acoustics of Gunn’s set tonight.

On album, Gunn strikes something of a middle ground between the scuzzy acid rock of his band’s live shows, and the barebones intimacy of tonight’s set. Last year’s ‘Eyes On The Line’ was heavy on groove, the effortlessly tight drum work driving a collection of songs that revel in the joy of understatement and placidity without ever risking dullness. Even on songs like ‘Ancient Jules’ – adorned as it is with an instantly memorable riff – there’s a cool calm to Gunn’s delivery; both in his smooth vocals and the complex, impressive guitar that he makes look so easy.

Without a band to keep the pace up, the endless forward momentum of his studio recordings is sometimes lost tonight but the songs do gain newfound ambience. Gunn often adds loose, freeform prologues to his songs, giving him a chance to explore the multicultural influences of his guitar work.  At times he mines from the vein of traditional Greek music, whilst at others he explores the otherworldly ragas that so influenced modern folk pioneers such as Davey Graham some fifty years ago. It’s at moments like this that the set shines the brightest – particularly when Gunn makes use of a drone pedal to flesh out the ragas. At times, there’s an almost hair-raising intensity to this sonic exploration; one that positively buzzes around the room.

His set tonight mixes up material from his three best known albums, but leans heavily towards last year’s effort. His albums are often split between acoustic and electric pieces, so it’s unsurprising that songs that were originally acoustic work well in the context of tonight’s gig. Fan favourite and show opener ‘Old Strange’ is not only one of Gunn’s best but also a safe bet for an acoustic show, having appeared that way on album. Hearing material from last year’s ‘Eyes On The Line’ is something of a revelation, however, if only for the fact that the album originally took shape as his most electric effort yet.

Whilst songs like ‘Ancient Jules’ and ‘Ark’ don’t necessarily work better acoustically than on album, it’s certainly a fascinating glimpse into what those songs could have been had the album taken a different direction and they make the transition well.

For the past decade or so, Gunn has been quietly creating one of the most interesting discographies in contemporary fringe-folk. Whilst it has only been since 2013’s ‘Time Off’ that he’s appeared on most’s radars, those in the know won’t need telling just what a talent he is, as anyone who’s seen him with his band will testify. So many great bandleaders fall down at solo performance – indeed, it’s something of a litmus test for the quality of a guitarist to see how well they cope with solo acoustic performance. Gunn, however, passes with flying colours.

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