FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: LIVE AT PIANO SMITHFIELD
Piano Smithfield is conveniently situated next to London’s Farringdon Station where you can pick up the impressive new Elizabeth line as well as contemplate the station’s history as the original terminus of the Metropolitan Railway, the world's first underground passenger service. A classic piano bar hosting late-night sessions with live requests a highlighted feature, the venue equally presents live jazz, soul, musical theatre, acoustic, rock; indeed, a whole range of styles somehow individually shoehorned into a tight, intimate space.
Last Friday, in the shadow of the Barbican’s 42-storey Lauderdale Tower, an immense structure standing like a guardian at a nearby corner of the Barbican Estate, I was expecting great things from Piano Smithfield. Prince Charles might not be a fan (of the brutalist tower rather than of piano bars) but the occasion felt like you were among independent music royalty with a stellar line-up of Skylon, Florie Namir and With Sun.
Photos of With Sun, Florie Namir and Skylon all by Kevin England
Coincidentally, I wrote last week about tonight’s opening act, Alice Hale aka With Sun, and highlighted her touchingly personal song, “Thirteen Weeks”, which charts the aftermath of her first miscarriage. She bravely included that song in a concise set, aided by her lead guitarist partner Stu and augmented on selected songs by the fine string-driven trio of Chloe Meade (violin), Nat Willow (viola) and Sophie Oliver (cello). Beginning with a short spoken-word piece, appropriately entitled “Listen”, this seemed to set down a marker for a packed yet hushed room. The audience afforded each act full attention and released tension with fervent applause between songs.
Midway in the set, “Night and Day” seemed to encapsulate With Sun’s flair for blending sadness with something akin to therapy. There is a healing tone to Alice’s voice that comes through in all her material whatever darkness is touched, while the way she just reaches high notes adds a fragility and distinction. With Sun oozes quiet assurance; everything is played with a delicacy yet the songs are substantial and telling in their sentiments. Stu’s electric guitar work is finely judged to complement Alice’s soft acoustic picking while the subtle addition of strings elevates the beautifully plaintive to higher ground. The set closes appropriately with Alice’s gracefully stripped-down version of “It’s a Mystery”, a song written for Toyah by her father, Keith. He was in the audience tonight and must have felt many a proud moment.
Next up was Israeli ex-pat Florie Namir whose sunny personality shines as a beacon from her opening words and notes. A singer-songwriter and pianist who melds American jazz vocal stylings with classic pop music influences, she has created an engaging signature sound that is perfectly seductive. With a set almost exclusively drawn from her I Wanna Be in Love EP, Florie gave full rein to the richness of her compositions whether in solo piano mode or accompanied by tonight’s industrious string trio. Her joyful opening song, “Piece Of My Soul”, saw her adroitly switching between third and first person to give a story of mutual infatuation a neat twist.
Florie Namir’s ability to caress the piano keys was a literal feature throughout her set; she has an innate feel for dynamics and choice counterpoint chord changes, if that’s not too many ‘c’s. “Bat Eser” (She’s Ten), a song about her childhood memories sung in Hebrew had the audience hanging on every word, not that many would have understood the language. It mattered not as the music itself spoke volumes. “Far, Far Away”, her most commercial song with a strong melody and irresistibly catchy chorus stood out while I particularly enjoyed “Time Is Melting”, a song with some echoes of Kate Bush that would comfortably slot into the stellar artiste’s back catalogue. Florie closed a lovely set with “Kindness”, a title indeed that says it all.
Both acts had been received so warmly that there was a sense that tonight’s main billing, Skylon, only needed to turn up to milk the applause. No matter; not only did Skylon show, the band went on to play a stunning set. Skylon is a collaboration between three seasoned musicians, each with their own individual projects, and comprises Luke Moore on piano tonight alongside vocalist Dorothy Bird and guitarist Paul F. Cook. Tonight Paul provided a talking point all of his own via his novel 'standy-uppy' guitar stand; surely a cure for all guitarist shoulder aches. A part of tonight’s excellent string trio, viola player Nat Willow also guests on the band’s sumptuous December 2021 EP, Postcards.
Birthdays also added to the upbeat feeling in the room. Luke had celebrated his 40th earlier in the week while tonight was Nat’s birthday – a deal sealed with a cake. It was nice that she got to air “Part of Me”, a feisty original song of hers before Skylon began its set with “Road Less Travelled”, the opening track from Postcards. This song, written by Paul with lyrics added by Luke, was actually instrumental in the band coming together and unfolds gracefully live; a shimmering soundscape clarified by Dorothy’s crystalline vocal.
The second song from the EP, “Adeline”, continues this mood of reverie with an air of folktronica about its wispy and willowy ways. As set the set progressed, it became more apparent that the music of Skylon does not fit convenient labels. You are struck by how well the songs are arranged and how they have a certain impact but also leave a sense that there are hidden depths waiting to be explored. There is a hint of prog rock sometimes; for instance, Paul Cook’s beautiful guitar intro to “What Could Have Been” had a feel of early Genesis while the pastoral feel to many of these songs also recalls that bucolic era. They are cojoined by a theme where things are not always as they first appear. A suitably bared version of Joy Divison’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” preceded the last track from the EP, “Why Wait” with Dorothy Bird again in supreme control of the song’s labyrinthal topline.
The evening closed on a fun note with a spirited and at times humorous encore of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” which offered plenty of scope for Chloe, Nat and Sophie to come to the fore and mimic the ‘Dave Stewart parts’. Individually and collectively all three acts and all the players tonight should be lauded for a superb evening’s entertainment and for reminding us just how great live music can be. Piano Smithfield’s sound man should equally take a bow for a faultless sound mix. [So, you enjoyed it then? – Ed].