- 24 Jan 20
Seth Lakeman, the good looking face of English folk music, walks casually on stage at the crack of 8.30 – as promised, no support. Though, as he says himself, his songs are based firmly in the West Country – that loose amalgamation of counties that includes the Devon he grew up in – he’s going to start with a song that’s suited to being in Ireland, ‘The Hurlers’ from 2008’s ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’. It’s not, sadly, a song about my old pal Brian Whelahan and his fabled family who all made the Offaly senior team, but rather a recounting of the legend of the Cornish hurlers who, against good advice, played the game on a Sunday only to be transformed into standing stones, which one may still visit in the parish of St. Cleer, as punishment. This – and the presentation of the song on violin and the lone bass drum on the floor at his left foot - should give you some idea where Lakeman is coming from if you’re unfamiliar. Songs about social media and reality tv will be few and far between.
He’s on his four-string tenor guitar for ‘The Educated man’ from the excellent The Well Worn Path from 2018, a song he dedicates to teachers – “ word is like a jewel, read everything you can” – and there’s no arguing with that. Recalling his last turn at Tradfest, Lakeman remembers playing in a “wonderful church, with beautiful acoustics.” He may be referring to St. Michan’s over in Smithfield but he’s in a rather different location tonight and so asks us to imagine we’re in folk club before a song about missing the place he travels away from to work – ‘Whenever I’m Home’ Lest things get too soft, a drone and more bass drum herald ‘The Bold Knight’, a legend from the Dartmoor where he lives that featured on 2004’s Mercury prize-nominated ‘Kitty Jay’. It’s a thrilling one-man performance.
“I’ve been in Dublin a few times with Robert.” Lakeman is being a bit self-effacing here, he’s worked extensively with Robert Plant as part of the Sensational Space Shifters, bringing a folk authenticity to Percy’s restless and admirable questing. He may be using this celebrity reference to ease us into songs from the new album, which is “a record all about the Mayflower and the puritans seeking religious freedom, the 400th anniversary is a big deal in Plymouth.” Wait! Come back! Where are you going? It’s actually a very strong piece of work, featuring guest spots from everyone from Cara Dillion to Lakeman’s Dad, Geoffrey, who quite rightly, had to be paid to play. The album is narrated by the actor Paul McGann, but that narration is, perhaps wisely, left out of the two songs we get tonight, ‘Foreign Man’ where the pilgrims have reached the new world and now must face its trials, and ‘Bury Nights’ about a desperate man falling to his knees in front of the William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth colony.
Good songs both, but Lakeman is aware that they’re a big ask to an audience that has yet to hear the album so he moves to “something less heavy” with ‘Lady Of The Sea’ although a ship does get dashed on the rocks, so it’s hardly Westlife. It’s rewarded by a big cheer from loyal members of the audience all the same. A side-note here, I was at the Flowers the night before for the first night of Tradfest, and there wasn’t an Aran jumper to be seen, but there’s one here tonight and the bloke is wearing a flat cap too! He may be from out of town.
Lakeman’s on the bouzouki for ‘Solomon Browne’ which recounts the Penlee lifeboat disaster from 1981 where 16 people perished, and there are more casualties in ‘Stand By Your Guns’, a song collected by Leeds music scholar Frank Kidson in the early part of the twentieth-century. Kidson was a founder of the Folk-Song Society who took it upon themselves to collect and preserve the old folk songs of Britain and Ireland. There is a lot going on here. Even when he sings the “only song my daughter can stand me singing, because it’s about a rabbit” it turns out to be ‘The White Hare’, another West Country revenant with designs on your soul. Even his tuning up and down is atmospheric, reminding me of the old story of the hippies wildly applauding Ravi Shankar for getting his instrument ready, as he goes into ‘The Courier’, a song with a tragically lonely and upset fiddle melody that then picks up the pace sharply as the bass drum boots it into a jig. The song his dad used to sing to him – ‘Setting Of The Sun’ - involves a man who shot his love in a case of mistaken identity because she had her apron over her head. Good luck getting that one past a judge. There’s a jaunty jump to a brand new song called ‘Changes’, dedicated to the farmers, which he rattles out on the four-string, and then shouts of recognition for ‘Freedom Fields’, another bang-up-to-date number about the Siege of Plymouth in 1644.
It might sound like I’m knocking him, but I’m not. Lakeman is a fine musician and a performer with the requisite skill to get these ancient missives across. He actually dons a “real” guitar for his son’s favourite song, “The Last Rider’, about a bloke who ran a steam engine, and finishes up with a wildly-atmospheric ‘Kitty Jay’ – the fiddle slows down to barely a sigh before the drum drives the rising pulse to a sudden finish. Just in case you were wondering, the devil, terrors that break the sleep, and graves all get a mention.
He’s back out quickly, as the audience demands, and hoists a pint of Guinness aloft before playing ‘Raise Your Glass’, singing it away from the microphone, swaying from side to side, eyes closed as the crowd joins in. There’s something very romantic, and aged about this image, and the song. A folk emotion, buried in the bones, and shared by all. It’s feeling that ran though this evening’s performance. Lakeman seems directly plugged into something very old and yet something still very vital indeed.