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JOHN SMITH / TJ & MURPHY/ BIRTHDAY GIRL @ EPSTEIN THEATRE LIVERPOOL 22/03/13 – REVIEW BY CHUMKI BANERJEE

Spectral vectors to deep inner place, nameless fiddler, bare foot bass, spirit guides though time, minds and space, dancing with Epstein in spiritual embrace.

Shaking off unseasonal chill of snowflakes, in scattered shower of glitter, entering Epstein’s vestibule was like glimmering through meniscus of time, engulfed in ether of bygone era, throwing magician’s cape, faded, yellowing light beams swirling up curvaceous stairway, conduit to another time and realm. Emerging to austerity, utilitarian and square, spartan bar beckoned with spiritualist’s flickering flare, candles in red glass, wood floor molten, glistening glow, slivers of distorted shadows cowering in gloom of glowering corners, elegant windows , darkly dilated, melancholic eyes. Recently brought back to life, the ex Neptune Theatre still somnambulates, wipes its rheumy eyes, ancient atmosphere musty, heavy with breath of manifestations, leaking from other dimensions, whisperings of nebulous apparitions rippling its air. Echoes of many famous presences palpably linger, wraiths of memory entwined in everlasting dance, amongst them light step of hopeful boy, who grew up and flew away, trailing shiver of a sigh, before life took terrible toll, inflicting tortured tragedy on his fragile soul; resuscitating this venue with his venerable name, star which shines anew.

Over one hundred years of tangled histories, layer upon layer of emotions, impart a surreal, spine tingling aura to The Epstein, entirely appropriate to luminous landscapes of the mind about to be woven from its very air. Ruffling heavy silk skirts, preened for occasion in dusky heritage green, piped with cornicing, bleached bone white, the theatre is subtly yet beautifully renovated, centre stage circled with séance lamps, ready to be illuminated by visitations.

Birthday Girl start to stir psychic pot, three astern, parallel guitars, deeply vibrating like lightening conductors, crackling with electricity, channelling spirit world; glowering vocals harmonised in intense shamanic, disconsolate, maudlin drawl ; haunting, hypnotic, moody melodies inciting forlorn forces, Bachelors barber shop harmonies gathering Victorian Gothic storms, wreathed in sixties psychedelic mists. Wizards, not yet fully schooled in dark arts, at times their incantations falter, sumptuous excitations fading into despondent doldrums as melodic structures meander, flail, unravel, disintegrate, merge into one. However, as they build momentum, their intriguingly individual, captivating sound casts enchanting spell and, by the end, with ‘At The Old House’, ectoplasm materialises more structured form, in totally bewitching song, ringing with choral cadences in Plain Song drone. A Miss Havisham, ‘cry if I want to’ band whom I will be listening out for, as they grow in confidence and experience. www.facebook.com/pages/Birthday-Girl/204921939563054

Picking up crystal ball, two conjoined stars  sparkling in my musical firmament, refracting emotion through stellar dust, illuminating emotive landscapes of the mind with rainbow aura, phosphorescent as Northern Lights; Liverpool’s ‘TJ and Murphy’, Thomas and David, Castor to Pollux Gemini twins , where one leaves off the other  seamlessly begins, with delicately interwoven, evocative vocals and glittering acoustic guitars; exquisitely expressed empathy, filling  spaces between poignantly poetic lyrics, to conjure luminescent atmosphere out of ether, shimmering into other dimensions, from first scintillation. Their debut album, ‘Weary Nights’, diving deep into raging storm of ardent, tremulous, troubled, questing, quivering soul ,with eloquent intensity hard to bear without tears, bound me inextricably to this duo with their extraordinarily intimate empathy and introspection.

Second album ‘Hurricanes, found the boys soaring like eagles on more carefree wings, and the past few years have seen them experimenting with different band layouts, to varying degrees of success. Though amenable to many forms of instrumentation and interpretation, I must admit, for me, TJ and Murphy’s music elicits most magic when performed as acoustic duo, the bond between them elucidating purity and clarity of their melodic and lyrical structures, delicate lines which need no more, which sometimes become tangled, obscured when battling for identity in other hands. So I was glad to see them emerge as a pair, with acoustic guitars, and slightly disconcerted by an un-named third player, in form of fiddler. However, I needn’t have worried, like spirit guide, this mysterious violinist floated light as wisp of smoke, adding another mystical layer to TJ and Murphy’s mesmerising mirage, churning mantra of scintillating, Celeste like guitars and earnestly reflective, ephemerally harmonised vocals.

As usual, Thomas takes nominal centre stage, Dave, ethereal breath beneath their butterfly wings, to one side, turns into him as they begin to weave inextricably interwoven tapestry of silken sound, plasma merging into one illuminating whole. Singing songs old and new, all are laden with insight, introspection, power of belief and deep understanding of human nature.

Though many TJ and Murphy tunes stick in my mind, there are a handful which have permanent residence in my head, strike particular resonance within my psyche, including three played tonight, ‘Joe Crazy Rose’ bitter sweet serenades to fleeting life and extraordinary characters who briefly share this mortal coil, divinity glimpsed in imperfection, celebrated with sincere reverence; and ‘Power Of Persuasion’ saturated in sensuous seduction.

Though I have heard all umpteen times, tonight they sound particularly beautiful and fresh, performed with the particular relaxed, unforced fervour, devotion and conviction which mark TJ and Murphy out. https://www.facebook.com/tjandmurphy

So, we retire for a drink, returning suitably infused with inspirational spirit both imbibed and imbued by osmosis from what we have heard thus far. Despite assimilation into other dimensions, until now staged lamps have remained unlit, flickering spookily to life, illuminated by appearance of the medium which is John Smith. Suited, booted, collar languidly gaping, rakishly adrift, sated flame haired satyr saunters onto stage, as if returning to home fires from Cambridge ball, setting scene for whispered whisky soaked, cigar smoked, conspiratorial contemplations. Through circumstance rather than intent, my encounters with John Smith’s music have been vicariously occasional, flirting surface rather than deep immersion, despite resolution to plunge in further. So, not quite as bitten by grip of ‘Winter’ as those who faint in paroxysms of ecstasy, at its first haunting, hoary whisper, I came to this baptism full of awe, but without religious fervour raising expectation to reverential  hallelujah. I must also confess, not consciously aware of confessional need to write review, I came unprepared, unschooled in his scriptures, memory and rapt attention unprepared for specific recollection of set lists or song titles. No excuse for my unforgiveable ignorance, titles didn’t seem to matter as stream of consciousness let loose, clasped us close like confidants, familiars, old friends, wandering corridors of reflective introspection, in passionate embrace.

John Smith has that rare ability to perfectly articulate in merest breath of words and music, innermost fragility which haunts humanity; a talent which tempts envy, but also carries enormous responsibility, unleashing flood of feelings which, once aroused  are difficult to staunch, put back into Pandora’s box. A power of understanding, clairvoyance which emanates from his core, like undulations on languid lake, carried in moonlit ripple of his guitar, wafted on peat smoke of his gently smouldering voice, bare foot double bass his Red Indian, midnight guide, weaving spirit catcher waveforms, plucking hearts strings with deeply vibrating, resonant ring.

Addictively entrancing, melodically beguiling, lyrically charismatic, each song drawing us deeper into nonchalant narrative, hoping for it never to end. I always remember hearing Garrison Keillor, the author, on radio, reading his tales of ordinary, yet extraordinarily fascinating, ‘Lake Woebegone’ small town lives, his languorous drawl drenched with love and compassion for quirks and frailties of us temporal mortal; longing to hear more, drown in quicksilver of that mercurial sound. John Smith’s music exerts that same irresistible fascination and, coincidently, his new album, which this tour celebrates, is called ‘Great Lakes’. Also totally coincidently, recalling the night in retrospect, I realise it is three songs from that album which most stick in my head both melodically and lyrically, and that two engage metaphors which strangely accord with extreme weather conditions besetting the night: ‘Freezing Winds Of Change’ about how friendships change, get left behind, ...no one there to hold you when you’re shivering... you get bitten by the freezing winds of change...”, how time takes its toll, “...it’s hard enough to stand up straight beneath the weight of time... I know my back is bending...” and how human spirit stands strong, “...but what I am defending is as precious as a song....my tired lungs unto the sky delivering....a final breath upon the winds of change...” succinctly expressing a whole universe of feeling in resigned wistful endearment of naked vocal woe, bass slipping and sliding on ice of fickle nature;

‘Perfect Storm’ perfectly describing turbulence of passionate love “...darling will I drown...or will the tempest make a man of me...I try to find a way to keep you safe...I am nowhere near the shore...what is love if not the perfect storm....”, lilting classic, buffeted, torn, totally engulfed, churning with desire; And the charming, whimsical, touching ‘Salty and Sweet’ siren in reverse, ancient mariner’s tale  “....a pair of ancient eyes...set into a face as old as land....burns his skin to touch the sand...crawls back into the sea...air is salty and sweet...in now up to my knees....leave my dress by way of explanation....my man doesn’t care for clothes...the things he does not own...never trouble him, never give him grief...‘cause he’s as soft as silk, as pure as baby milk...and harder than the earth he so scorns....” What utterly entrancing words, who could resist such a man, even when he drags you deep beneath the waves?  Songs of love and life, soaring melodies like mountain mists, prowling on wolf’s velvet feet, howling at the moon, John’s set travels gamut of introspective emotion, tortured to ecstatic he transports spell bound audience to another place, modern day troubadour, lonesome dove cowboy, touch of steely slide guitar sounding mystical in his hands; apple pie to unembarrassed Adam Cohen sensual intimacy, John Smith’s music, organic, at one with nature, maudlin yet joyous, poignantly tragic, expresses our inner being with simple, direct beauty, in tumbling, magical, musical motifs, washed by warm caress of rippling sound.

I may not remember the names of all his songs, but I will long feel shiver of his shifting sand beneath my feet; breathe his sweet and salty air. www.facebook.com/acousticsmith

Review and pictures by the enraptured Chumki Banerjee