Johnny Flynn has recently taken a hiatus from music, instead gracing the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe and the West End to act in Richard III, Twelfth Night and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Now the tousled English folkster has returned to the folk scene in which he cuts such an inimitable figure. This current tour, promoting his new album Country Mile, proves that he has not lost his touch.
Flynn’s voice appears effortless, slipping the notes into each phrase like delicate fingers into a perfectly fitting glove. He is as pitch-perfect live as he is on recordings, and brings an additional frisson to his performance with his unforced authenticity and the occasional well-placed extra glissando. The Sussex Wit (made up of Flynn’s sister Lillie on vocals, flute and melodian, David Beauchamp on drums, Adam Beach on bass, Joe Zeitlin on cello and newest member Cosmo Sheldrake on keyboard) complement Flynn beautifully. The band sit separately on a sparse stage, silhouetted by back lighting; a beguiling set-up that belies the perfect synchronicity of their performance as a seamless whole. Lillie’s voice adds an ethereal aura to her brother’s earthy tones, which together mingle with miscellaneous folk instruments to create a sound that maintains its integrity as much at Hackney Empire as it did at their intimate Rough Trade record store gig two weeks ago.
The set was compiled from a satisfying mix of old favourites and new songs. Many of the new ones do sound remarkably similar to those from his previous two albums, A Larum and Been Listening – Flynn’s sound has definitely not been revolutionised, lending a certain sameness to the gig. But if you like intriguing, imaginative folk then that’s no bad thing. From the heart-warming Einstein’s Idea (written when his son was born – cue every woman in the crowd melting) and the two-part contrapuntal harmony of After Eliot, to the vigorous trumpet-enhanced folk-rock of Howl and the rollicking Tickle Me Pink, there is plenty of diversity within Flynn’s oeuvre to keep you wanting more.
Flynn’s music always instills a certain emotional heft, with his catchy hooks and ambiguous, poetic lyrics. Seeing him live, you feel this even more keenly – there is a lack of pretension in these songs that makes you want to slow down your pace of life, pick up a banjo and strum your heart out. Watching a Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit gig is like going for a wholesome walk through the forests of the world, taking in everything from acorn to oak and emerging covered in mud with ruddy cheeks, much like Flynn’s own, and gratifyingly invigorated by your nourishing musical experience.