Ethan Johns With The Black Eyed Dogs

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  • Robert Vincent
Heaven's Gate @ 81 Renshaw 21/8/18

Part classic Americana, part trippy, voodoo space cadet blues wig-out, the new ETHAN JOHNS album, Anamnesis, finds him back in his true comfort zone. Though highly regarded as a producer, working with such road-worn and whiskey-soaked wanderers as Ryan Adams, Howie Payne, Ray LaMontagne and The Jayhawks, he is first and foremost a songwriter and storyteller. And he’s more than handy with a bewildering array of instrumentation.

The evening begins as the room warms to the level of airless and oppressive, with a fine set of country blues songs from Liverpool’s own ROBERT VINCENT. Vincent’s instinctive and soulful vocal tones, layers of slide guitar and keyboards, tightly-packed harmonies and his innate ability as a songsmith prove that him winning 2018’s UK American Album Of The Year Award with the superb I’ll Make The Most My Sins is not only well deserved, but also somewhat overdue. His gift for a song, like his self-effacing humour, is natural and easy, like every great writer, like Ethan Johns, it is simply a part of his being. Again, this is an artist who is deserving of a much bigger stage.

Johns paints romantic pictures in his songs. Rich in character, these are tales of history, of the road, of love and loss. Stories of the everyday, and of everyday folk, tinged and flavoured with many years on the road.
For this record of organic, earthy blues folk, he’s assembled a new band around him, The Black Eyed Dogs, and together they recorded the album in his garden studio in just two weeks. It doesn’t feel that way, though. Typically for Johns, these songs have a striking familiarity. To hear the opening song of this set, Runaway Train, you’d swear Merle Haggard had knocked it up in Folsom Prison decades ago. He wears those years on the road well. The band tonight is missing drummer Jeremy Stacey, who according to Johns is “away earning a living”, so there’s a relaxed, stripped-back, front porch atmosphere in the music, the mood and here in the desert-hot back room of 81 Renshaw.

Ruskin’s Farthing is a great piece, an ancient tale of a court case brought against the 19th Century art critic John Ruskin following a particularly ungracious and dastardly review. In the event, only a farthing and no costs were awarded in damages. A story you’d think more suited to a hero of English folk like Martin Carthy or Chris Wood, but imagined here and delivered in Ethan Johns’ rich, part-sung, part-whispered and cracked vocal, it feels, again, so natural a setting.

Leaving It All Behind, with the delicious plaintive strains of Georgina Leach’s violin weaving through it, and the melodic bass work of Nick Pini, is another highlight of a set rich in beautiful moments. Redemption and forward movement are the themes here, and the song’s dusty country blues landscape carries it so well.

Armed with a Stratocaster, the set mutates midway to the darker side of the street, twisting into the heat of Renshaw Street with the Hawkwind-esque blues psych of The Knot Of Aurelius Augustine, and the dark, Dylan-tasting 21st Century Paranoid Blues, with its sadly all-too-familiar themes. It’s all squeezed Strat motifs and clanging dissonance over the simple pulse of Pini’s bass.

The climax of this perfectly-pitched set included a simple and beautiful tale of a lonesome drive across America from Los Angeles to upstate New York to collect his then girlfriend, now his wife. His heart open, his love laid out for all to hear, The Great White North has everything you need from a love song. It’s an open and honest portrayal of one man’s deepest love. Special. Really special.

This is a set of old and new tunes, the brightest shining light and the darkest melancholy shade, all effortlessly delivered by this accomplished writer and his supremely talented band. Highlighting an album that is only available in physical form with no streams, these are songs to climb into, songs to live and for living. Let’s hope that this fourth Ethan Johns album sees him getting similar plaudits to the work he does behind studio desks.

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