Toronto’s cavernous Lee’s Palace perhaps seemed like a slightly odd choice of venue to host British folkster Johnny Flynn. The iconic comic book–inspired exterior and black, somewhat dive-y interior of the building seemed at odds with the crowd at last Wednesday night’s show, which was attended largely by polite girls in their early 20s and good-natured boyfriends who were brought along as company.
When the opening band, the Melodic, took the stage and began their folk-y, upbeat set in earnest, a buzz of excitement began to slowly permeate the somewhat subdued room. The band’s music had the sort of simple catchy melodies and male-female traded vocals that are popular right now, and their single “On My Way” recalled Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ infectious “Home”. Boyish lead singer Huw Williams’ voice offered a texture and character usually reserved for 40-year-old vinyl recordings, evoking the ethereal hum of Tim Buckley at times.
All this set the stage for headliner Johnny Flynn, who took the stage solo, wielding his acoustic guitar. He began his set by semi-frantically digging through his pockets for a set list and then apologetically sidling off stage, only to return a few seconds later to sheepishly share his discovery that the list had been in his pocket the whole time. This unassuming, impish charm dominated Flynn’s stage banter, and he offered a kind of inexplicable charisma that immediately won the crowd over. (It sounds as though he may bring a similarly low-key charm as an actor, too: a new film, Song One, which played to strong reviews at the Sundance Film Festival last week, finds Flynn starring alongside Anne Hathaway.)
However, Flynn’s slightly bumbling onstage persona couldn’t be more distinct from his confidence as a musician. From the opening guitar strum of his first song of the night, the B-side “The Ghost of O’Donahue”, Flynn delivered all of the emotional heft of his recorded music and then some. His pure voice cut through the room, frequently reducing the crowd to reverent silence.
Flynn also proved a master of dynamics, starting many of his songs at a murmur and building to a searing crescendo at the chorus. This was the case with “Einstein’s Idea”, a standout track from Flynn’s latest album, Country Mile. Though originally conceived as a lullaby for Flynn’s child, his live iteration of the song was laced with an urgency that hinted at a pain absent from the original recording. He also delighted the crowd with favourites from his back catalogue, including “Tickle Me Pink”, “The Wrote and the Writ”, and “Been Listening”.
One unlikely highlight of the night came midway through the show. Flynn announced that he was about to play “The Water”, a song he usually performs with Laura Marling, and the audience seemed to take this as an open casting call for a new duet partner. One embarrassed audience member was even hoisted onto the stage by her friends. A flustered Flynn, ever the gentleman, gave the young lady a hand up, only to then realize, judging by the look on his face, the potential disaster of what was to come. However, his impromptu collaborator was actually very good, nailing all of the lyrics and harmonies of the intricately woven ballad. Flynn’s relief was palpable as soon as she began to sing, and he commended her after the fact for her talent and “balls”.
Showing a soft side and some genuine grit to his rock-infused music, Flynn’s live show was a dynamic and potent musical affair.