Award winning music producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon, Tom Jones etc. etc.) is more used to working behind the scenes, making others sound good, rather than having attention focused on himself. All that is changing following the release of his aptly titled solo album IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN? To coincide with the vinyl release late last year, he embarked upon a well-received tour of independent record stores; now with February’s CD release he is touring the UK playing more mainstream venues.
Brighton was the first stop and Johns attracted pretty much a full house at the 150 capacity Unitarian Church. Dressed smartly in a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie he started with the album’s opening track Hello Sunshine. The live debut of this song at a show with Laura Marling in 2009 encouraged him to consider recording his own material (he’s been writing for many years) and not only that, but also to take to the road himself. As a highly respected multi-instrumentalist he’s toured with some of the artists he’s produced but this was, he said, ‘kind of my first gig’.
Having limited himself to touring with just two guitars, he cleverly made use of his ‘Magic Music Box’ to provide additional accompaniment – it’s a device constructed by his long time collaborator, engineer Dom Monks, to capture the range of instruments Johns would normally have at his disposal in a studio. You really need to see it for yourself to fully appreciate what it can do. That said, he didn’t need it for a song he performed on piano as much to his surprise, the Church had a rare Baumeister. He has a Baumeister at home; a gift from his father, legendary produced Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Eric Clapton) and recalled how as a young boy, he’d listen to his grandmother play it.
IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN? is influenced by the traditions of folk, blues and rock; showcasing tracks from it tonight demonstrated Johns’ love for music that is personal and authentic. For someone of such pedigree he was warmly engaging, even humble on stage as he punctuated the songs with stories of people he has worked with. His voice is gentle, mellow and has an understated charm.
He threw a few unrecorded songs into the mix – Among the Sugar Pines, Black Heart and You Changed. The latter was very new; he’d rarely sung it but felt comfortable enough in front of Brighton’s receptive audience, to risk it. Glad he did – it was captivating. During last year’s tour he took to finishing with Lay Down Your Tune For Me written by his friend Howie Payne, and that’s how he completed tonight’s delightful show. Jela Webb