LIVE: Hotel Books @ The Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham

By Mark Johnson

When the first thing a headlining band does is ask some of their audience to leave, you already know it won’t be a traditional performance. If you’ve ever been to an acoustic show, you’ll know who the message is aimed at: those who are more interested in talking loudly to their friends than respecting the performers. With Hotel Books consisting largely of spoken word and narrated elements, songwriting mastermind Cam Smith is keen to prevent any etiquette issues by politely inviting anyone looking to simply hang out with their friends to take their conversations to the bar upstairs. It’s clear that Smith knows his audience, he knows the kind of show he wants to put on and by setting the right atmosphere from the start, he succeeds on all levels.

Supported by his backing band, Smith opens with a couple of full-throttle tracks to get the crowd engaged before his bandmates depart the stage, making way for a stripped-back section that embodies the core of Hotel Books. When this project first began, it was simply Smith reciting his poetry to the sound of a lonely, ambient guitar and for the next three songs he recreates those humble beginnings. It’s a raw, emotional performance that’s so powerful and unique that the crowd doesn’t contemplate uttering a single sound throughout.

The band rejoin the stage to close with more raucous material, set closer ‘Car Crash’ being the most impressive of the night. It’s rare to see a band perform so soon after releasing a record and not play a single song from it, but as Smith describes his attitude to designing a setlist, it further adds to the charm of the performance. Each Hotel Books song comes from a very personal place and depending on Smith’s current mood and circumstance, they can’t all be relevant at all times. To Smith, performing a song that requires staged emotion is counter to everything he sets out to achieve; on any given night, only the songs that matter in that moment are played. This makes every show a direct insight into Cam Smith’s psyche at that point in time, making each one truly unique and exclusive.

Between songs Smith maintains a dialogue with the room, discussing his inspirations and sharing stories, further perpetuating an intimate connection with his audience. It’s this level of authenticity that sets him apart; sadly many live shows today are reduced to watching bands simply cover their songs rather than performing them, but for Hotel Books, there’s no escaping the raw, pure and honest presentation of their music.

It’s clear on the faces of those leaving the venue that some interpret the show as one of the most illuminating live experiences they’ve encountered, and for others it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. But that’s actually a positive thing. Smith lays his soul on the stage and performs with such raw emotion in his voice that leaving the room thinking “that was okay” would be the antithesis of what he’s trying to achieve. Whether you love it or hate it, Hotel Books forces an emotional response and that’s precisely what makes this project so special.