I’ve liked Johnny Flynn’s music for a few years, but he doesn’t seem to be touring much lately, and I hadn’t seen him live, so when he was going to play a gig in Brighton, an hour’s train ride from London, it was the perfect opportunity for a day trip to the seaside. When I saw an ad for an in-store set and record signing the same afternoon before the main concert, I also signed up for that.
Arriving in Brighton on a sunny Friday, I walk from the station to the record store, where the signing will take place, Resident Records, located in what feels like the bohemian part of town, with lots of little shops of the quirky kind and cosy cafes. I continue my walk to the pebble beach. I’ve never really cared much for pebble beaches – sandy beaches for me, please. But being near the sea is always a relief and a revelation, and a portion of fish and chips – a type of food I don’t even like very much – seems right when you’re by the seaside in England.
Back at Resident Records, a line of people waiting for the in-store gig is shaping up. I talk to a woman from Canada who is in England specifically to see Johnny Flynn and a young couple who seem to be big fans and have seen him several times before. We have the kind of conversation you can have with strangers you know nothing about and will probably never see again but with whom you share a common interest. Those conversations can sometimes be the best.
About a hundred of us are treated to a short set of about six songs, played on acoustic guitar by Flynn sitting on the counter. He’s two meters away, and if it’s intimidating to him to be this close to a group of people watching his every move, he doesn’t show it. It’s fascinating to see a singer close up because you can see and hear how skilled he is. There’s nowhere for him to hide behind other musicians, or smoke and mirrors, or playback or autotuning. It’s all-natural and live – and it sounds great. Afterwards, he signs our records; bless him.
That must be tiring; turning up to do an in-store mini gig, a signing and then do a proper gig later. But Flynn has done this many times before. When he asks me who to make his signature out to, I say my name, and he exclaims, ’That’s my daughter’s name’.
Then my newfound friends (for today at least) and I share a taxi down to the church, and good thing we do because there’s already a long queue of people waiting to get in to get good seats. The Canadian woman and I both get seats near the stage, while the young couple opts for the overview from the balcony seats.
Johnny Flynn and his band, The Sussex Wit, enter the stage and open the evening with Raising the Dead, a catchy song reeking of melancholy spiked with joy. This combination sets the tone for an evening of folk songs played by a six-man-strong band, armed with a cluster of instruments, including flutes and mandolins. Flynn also throws in a couple of trumpet solos on songs like Howl and Brown Trout Blues – because he can.
For this listener, Johnny Flynn’s songs are most potent when played acoustically, and I think that form of music fits his voice best. So I particularly enjoy songs like Murmuration, which is heartbreakingly beautiful, and The Water, both quiet songs that allow Flynn’s voice to shine in all its strengths and fragilities.
However, louder songs like mandolin-heavy, shanty-styled Cold Bread and the uptempo, Tickle Me Pink are played with such conviction and energy that I’d defy anyone not to sing or dance along.
Throughout the evening, and especially towards the end, people are dancing in the church’s aisles. When I look up at the couple on the balcony, they beam down at me with satisfied smiles. Towards the end of the gig, Flynn plays Heart Sunk Hank, a song whose lyrics,’ Oh the ocean carries me…She carries me away…She carries me back home’, fit the location in a church by the sea perfectly. Then it’s time for one of my favourite songs of his, The Box, which marks a great ending to a lovely concert, in the company of good people. It was a beautiful day by the seaside, indeed.
Johnny Flynn setlist