Taking to the small stage of an unlikely venue, Jon Gomm called the chair-loving crowds forward to have an audience that he could see and feel in front of him. He is a performer who needs that connection, who goes on stage to move his audience and, knowing the power of proximity, takes every opportunity to get up close to those who have made the effort to get closer to him.
And effort matters, attention matters. Silence matters. If Jon Gomm can stand on stage for 80 minutes, and more, beating the hell out of his guitar, pulling the highest notes out of his voice and digging deep into his life to bring forth his music, you can stand and be quiet. “Shhh. Shut up mate,” mid-song to a noisy exchange at the bar. But the seriousness, the talent, and yes, the level of effort undertaken is undercut by brilliant wit and dry humour throughout.
There needs to be a light side to the intensity of watching the man recently voted by MusicRadar as the Best Acoustic Guitarist in the World Right Now. Jon has taken percussive guitar playing, melodic retuning, two-handed tapping and a host of other techniques to a different, wholly integrated level. There are times when his hands are working so independently – whilst he’s singing – that it almost defies belief. And the subject matter of songs such as The Weather Machine, The Ghost In You and career definer Passionflower take in everything from acceptance to tragic loss and geopolitics. So stories about necking pints in a very alien Asia and being heckled on stage in his birthplace of Blackpool are much needed.
Taking a similarly self-deprecating and equally humorous approach to between-song banter, support act Duncan Leigh showed off his comedic and classical chops, with a set of originals, standard repertoire and clever arrangements. I’ll Stand By You was a beautifully moving rendition of the Pretenders classic while his own Dawn saw Duncan at his musical best, steering the audience through challenging modal dissonances with apparent ease. Finishing with a set of variations on the Teletubbies theme was a touch of brilliant madness that brought laughter and cheers from an impressed audience.
But, while cleverness and jawdropping techniques were in abandon, both players used their skills to touch and move their audience. A friend, who had never seen Jon Gomm before, said to me at the end of the show, “He plays from the heart, that one.” Not a mention of the tricks and, what Jon once described as “gimmicks”, when I watched him honing this unique style in Leeds, 20 years ago. The inventions, the complications Jon goes through to express his music are the necessary lengths he must take to express meaning through his instrument. Because, as complicated as his playing is, it still isn’t as complicated as the thoughts, emotions and moments of life that we all try to understand.
At the end of the night, Jon unplugged the guitar and came forward to the lower stage to play acoustic. Stripped of the layers of reverb and devoid of amplification, the guitar suddenly sounded small, the voice quiet. And the audience responded. The drunk girl in the corner stopped shouting and we all listened to a song by a dead friend. We listened, intimately, intensely and silently.
Heavy stuff. Thank God he can tell a good joke too.
Sin City, Swansea, Sat 16 Oct
words and photos JOHN-PAUL DAVIES
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