In what could be called the best story hour ever, singer Johnny Flynn captivated 150 Kenyon College students (and a dozen or so interlopers) who sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of the tiny Horn Gallery, an arts venue in the middle of campus managed and booked by students.
Touring solo and equipped only with his trademark resonator guitar, Flynn filled the room with densely textured folk-, blues-, and bluegrass-inflected music that seemed more than the work of one man. He opened with “Lost and Found”, from Been Listening, his latest album with his band the Sussex Wit, and worked his way through another 11 songs, four from the new release, six from his first album, A Larum, and two from last year’s EP Sweet William.
Flynn pens opaque, poetic lyrics that turn modern ballads like “Shore to Shore”—inspired by a real-life accident in which a young woman was killed by a London bus—into postmodern puzzles with shifting points of view and evocative, evasive metaphors.
The songwriter’s melodic range and versatile guitar playing were also on display Wednesday night: from the bouncy rhythm of “Shore to Shore” to the frenetic pace of “The Box”, to the languor of “Brown Trout Blues”—whose tempo matches its refrain (“I’ll only take the brakes off if you do”), to the dreamy waltz-time of “The Water”. A duet with Laura Marling on Been Listening, “The Water” has garnered a lot of attention since the album’s October 26 U.S. release. It’s just as beautiful when performed by Flynn alone.
Flynn concluded with “Tickle Me Pink”, from A Larum. The album version builds to crescendo of voices, and Flynn invited the audience to sing along with the chorus, which serves as a good example of his often morbid wit: “Pray for the people inside your head / For they won’t be there when you’re dead / Muffled out and pushed back down / Pushed back through the leafy ground”. The sound of a room full of 20-year-olds singing “when you’re dead” over and over again, while Flynn provided harmony, made for an exhilarating end to an unforgettable evening.
In between numbers, Flynn entertained the crowd with brief stories and observations characterized by the same understated humor that finds its way into many of his songs. A description of stops on his current U.S. tour included this description of the plains—‘a whole lot of nothing’, quickly qualified as ‘a very beautiful nothing’.
Flynn was generous with his time and attention before and after his set. He had dinner with students, attended a pre-show party, watched opening act Pinegrove (standing on a chair in the back of the hall), and posed for photos and chatted with over half the crowd afterwards. All this despite having taking the redeye from Seattle the night before.
Over the course of their set, student duo Pinegrove demonstrated an impressive range of their own. Until recently singer-guitarist Evan Hall was a solo act, but now Pinegrove also features Nandi Plunkett on vocals, piano, and percussion. The interplay of two voices—mostly in counterpoint rather than harmony—gives Hall’s songs much greater depth and lends Pinegrove a distinctive sound.
Thanks to Nora Bergin and the rest of the Horn Gallery committee for arranging a great show, and for letting a couple of geezers crash their party.
“Lost and Found”
“The Mountain is Burning”
“Brown Trout Blues”
“The Wrote and the Writ”
“Sweet William” (Part 1)
“Shore to Shore”
“Tickle Me Pink”