John Smith, PØRTS, and the Prima String Quartet
John Smith is a folk guitarist and singer from Devon who has toured with artists like John Martyn, Iron and Wine, and Gil Scott-Heron, so his pedigree was not in question. It’s just that the two acts that had preceded him were verging on the sublime. The room was soundless as he commenced, and in that stillness he started playing his steel-string acoustic guitar in a dusty summer way, bringing on feelings of long ago melancholy. “Soon maybe I will be able/Darling if only you knew.” His eyes were closed. The silk melody of the song “There Is a Stone” had fallen over us.
Open House Festival had brought him over to tour around Northern Ireland with support from PØRTS and Prima String Quartet. Smith was accompanied on stage by brothers Joe McGurgan on double bass and John McGurgan on guitar. Skin-tight, sweet harmonies between all three men ensued in the haunting “Freezing Winds of Change,” from the Great Lakes album, and indeed those harmonies coated the whole performance as the night progressed.
But the mood wasn’t just set by the music. Smith is funny. I didn’t expect him to be. “I wrote this love song in Enniskillen,” he told us. “Of course the person I wrote it about is dead to me now.” The set was peppered with these, and it needed them. It needed connection between us and the man who had opened up all those feelings in us. Connection that didn’t move us the way the next song was just about to. He needed to be approachable. Turns out he was.
“I’m going to sing a country song in the gentleman’s key of F,” is how he introduced “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn.” The song was aching, and the three-part harmonies barely salved that. “Love is a precious thing I’m told/Like West Virginia coal,” I think that’s how it went. That is the song that followed me home in the car.
He furnished us with some noticeable slide guitar on “Town to Town.” Winsome, tall, stretched notes underscored the unfolding story. “Young men go from town to town,” they repeated together, and as it tailed, and we applauded, I noticed Joe McGurgan frozen in action, double bass at an angle, waiting, just waiting for us to finish. Obviously used to audiences making this mistake, they patiently held off for us to finish. Then they played the last perfect notes of the song.
The Prima String Quartet joined them for the remaining songs. What unfolded was faultless. There was beautiful picking by Smith himself, the ongoing almost unearthly harmonies, and the strings adding a whole new backdrop, a wider canvas, a whole set of brushes to paint in whatever colours we heard. These last songs, like so many other others throughout the set, were from the Great Lakes album.
They ended on “Lungs.” They left us to the elements, with the guitar and the voices; the strings, and the words. “I gave up nothing/you gave up everything/until you gave me away.” John Smith had reached the sublime.
It was The Prima String Quartet who opened the concert. With two violins, a viola, and cello, they proceededto take us somewhere else, somewhere long ago. Their opening piece was “Fratres,” composed by Arvo Pärt. There was an apparent simplicity to it (which I know from reading the cover notes of my one singular Pärt CD, is simply never the case). I pictured scratchy ice, grey light. The cello would pluck portentously, but what was due to come never seemed to happen. The sun would appear with the strings again. Niamh McGowan from the Quartet told me about how good it was to be playing such an “acoustically friendly” room. She described the piece as “repetitive, trancey, and meditative.” From where I was sitting, it was exquisite.
The Quartet remained where they were, when PØRTS came on stage. PØRTS is an indie-folk band, creating music that makes you breathe slower. Lead vocalist Steven McCool opened with a mobile phone in each hand, whistling into one, which fed into the other, as it was amplified around the room through the microphone. Strange and haunting, the technique continued at relevant parts throughout “The Devil is a Songbird.” It made McCool’s singing echo occasionally, while the Quartet filled it all up from behind. His voice was mountain fresh and the falsetto harmonies were flawless.
“I’d Let You Win” then followed with deeper, ghostly harmonies, splashed with strings like rain on the street. “Night Dries like Ink” was written for Steven’s brother heading off to Australia. The cello at the start did carry a certain heavy heart, but as the strings lightened and the harmonies brightened it, there was just more beauty than sadness in the sound. “Killer” off their upcoming album, offered us humble sounding guitar and dewdrop keyboards that continued like a nursery clock. There was a row of heads gently nodding in front of me as a more upbeat tempo was subtly shaken into it. The strings picked this up, they left a trail, they took whatever was in your mind’s eye, and padded it like a quilt.
One night in March I saw John Smith, PØRTS, and The Prima String Quartet play. It was one of the most achingly beautiful nights I’ve been to.