sun 21/07/2024

Jon Allen/ Josh Bray, Bush Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Jon Allen/ Josh Bray, Bush Hall

Jon Allen/ Josh Bray, Bush Hall

Two emerging singer-songwriters suggest the genre's future is bright

Jon Allen: Proving himself a songwriter's songwriter

Jon Allen and his support Josh Bray are two sides of a coin. Of the two folk-rockers, the smoother, more polished Allen’s the heads. Bray is rougher, more unknown. But last night they both showed the depth of quality that exists in contemporary commercial roots-influenced music. Allen is touring his second album, Sweet Defeat. Its beautifully crafted songs and refined production have impressed the likes of Jools Holland, and last night he took it to a new level.

But Bray, whose debut Whisky and Wool wowed theartsdesk, fought past poor sound to show he’s not far behind.

Both troubadours grew up in the West Country as avid music fans. But Bray's first love wasn’t the folk and blues that flowed so naturally out of him on the album. He started as a rocker, and in a muggy Bush Hall, he looked like a burgeoning West Coast rock star playing the High School prom. Bad sound is pretty much part of the deal in Bush Hall, but there didn’t seem to be any good reason why someone couldn’t have dimmed the lights, or made more of an effort to focus attention on the stage.

But despite the foyer-like atmosphere and bass-heavy acoustics, Bray, 6ft tall with surfer looks, retained his confidence and composure. On record he sounds intense and introspective, but last night he just wanted to perform. On the first two numbers, “Rise”, and the “Song Yet to be Named”, he seemed to still be finding himself, but from “River Song” to the end it was as if he’d imagined away his surroundings and was playing the concert he’d always dreamed about in the shower. A cover of the Chemical Brothers' “Let Forever Be” was reworked in a Pearl Jam style, with him doing a mean Eddie Vedder. “This is Life” spoke of youthful dreams in a beautiful dropped D tuning, and “Indian Gin” finally silenced all the chattering with its slow growling blues.

If Bray looked like he was struggling to overcome the limitations of the venue, Allen looked like he just didn’t care. In his suit, hat and newly grown beard he looked like he’d played every barrelhouse in Europe and wasn’t going to be put off by anything. And if he’s been playing like this over the last couple of years, I think I know where that confidence comes from: everyone telling him just how good he is. Stripped of all the superfluous layers of sheen on the records, Allen revealed himself as a songwriter’s songwriter. The way his songs evoked and held a moment in three wonderfully constructed minutes was reminiscent of Ron Sexsmith’s craftsmanship. But more than Sexsmith, Allen can really hold a crowd, and he can project his personality out the back of a venue and beyond.

A former student of popular songwriting, Allen offered various different sounds over the evening. He opened like Billy Joel on “Stealing Away”, then there was Nick Drake on “Going Home”, and The Eagles on “Joanna”. “New Year's Eve” could have been an out-take from Dylan’s Woodstock period right down to the vocal. And yet somehow it was all so wrapped up in Allen’s own personality, observations, and musical language that it never seemed to be in any way imitative or karaoke. Twice in the evening, (“Sweet Defeat” and “Lucky I Guess”) Allen invited the Stella Horns and soul singer Louise Marshall (pictured right) onto the stage. It was as if he had found a way to finally terrorise those troublesome acoustics into submission. Suddenly it was Van Morrison, Neil Young and Bob Dylan touring Street Legal all rolled into one, and singing on one very improbable stage. On “Time to Cry” Allen dismissed his ever-tight band to stand alone and vulnerable and conjure up the spirit of the early Dylan bootlegs.

And as Allen treated us to the various shades of his gravelly voice he skilfully changed pace from droopy love ballads to “what passes for Jon Allen as a dance song”. Two albums into his career it was as if he was putting a compilation together. The night had nothing to do with busting genres or riding zeitgeists. In many ways it was backward looking. But that really wasn’t the point. When Jools Holland first heard Jon Allen he apparently immediately Shazam-ed it on his iPhone, to find out the artist. Both Allen and Bray are like that. They grab you instantly. You are sure you know them but you can’t quite place it. If they can get the airplay, that quality will get them far. God knows they deserve it.

Watch Jon Allen perform "In Your Light" on Later... with Jools Holland


From “River Song” to the end it was as if he’d imagined away his surroundings and was playing the concert he’d always dreamed about in the shower

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