Monday, 16 April 2012

Tales from the Barrel House to the Ballroom

Seth Lakeman at The Assembly – Leamington Spa 24/03: A Review

What an awesome way to top off what had been more like a summer’s day than early spring. The venue for this gig was an old ballroom complete with intricately designed motifs on the surrounding walls and a large space in the centre of the ceiling where a huge glittering disco ball would have hung. Cue a cavalcade of colourfully vivid time travel flashbacks to the 70’s featuring images of funky divas in full swing demonstrating their dazzlingly daring disco skills. Unlike some excuses for musical performance however, Seth’s entrance was not about to be marked by him being lowered down on a gigantic disco ball.

Music from the Mountains

I usually make an effort to research support acts and check out what kind of music they have to offer but being as busy as I have lately the first thing I learned about folk harmony duo Winter Mountain, was the name of their act when I caught a glimpse at a promo poster earlier that afternoon. Although this was a short set (being a support act) their phenomenal performance is worthy of a full review because the pleasant surprise their delicate acoustic sound offered completely blew me away. It was so sublime I opened my eyes to find my feet were no longer on the ground.

I will admit when I saw the beards I thought the pair were from Seattle a la Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses or Death Cab For Cutie. However, while Martin is from Donegal in Ireland and Joe from St Austell in Cornwall their sound certainly demonstrates the Seattle type influence of the aforementioned bands. The overall package offers even more, reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel but with considerably more gusto. 

Memphis Bound

The duo met while backpacking their way across the US, Martin from west coast to east and Joe from east coast to west. Fate lent its guiding hand as they stepped on to the same train while both in Chicago heading down to Memphis. The rest as they say is history and judging by this performance an incredibly bright future lies ahead for them too.
Their sound is perhaps experimental but nowhere does it lack even a little in quality as a result of this. If anything it provides an impetus for real heartfelt performance and such incredibly tranquil sounding melodies I wasn’t surprised when the rest of the audience joined me for a float fest in the air as the pair sang out a song called Sarah. It wasn’t all the same style throughout either as they mixed it up a bit with each tune. Sometimes singing almost an entire song together in flawless harmony, others where each had their own parts but came in interlacing the other like their vocals were emulating the perfection of a proper love-struck relationship. As testament to their talent they have recently signed a record deal with Cara Dillon’s Charcoal Records so I look forward to what comes from this magical pairing. 

Leamington Laps Up Lakeman

I first heard about Seth Lakeman through fellow Levellers fans but having foolishly missed his set at the Beautiful Days festival in 2010 (I have since learned one must obtain a programme as soon as one arrives at these events) I felt it was imperative I get to one of his gigs as soon as possible. Thus as soon as tickets were released for his early 2011 dates I made sure I snapped one up immediately as part of my mission to get to at least one live gig every month. I desperately wanted but was unable to get to a date on his second 2011 tour promoting the limited release of his latest album last December but lucky for me he soon announced a string of dates for this year.
With success that has been building gradually since he went solo in 2002 it is easy to see why Seth has become somewhat the poster boy for contemporary folk music. The former Mercury award nominee (2005) helps introduce the diversity this genre can, at times, offer to music fans. While traditional folk elements are never far from evident in his music, he manages to marry these with sounds somewhat more palatable for a mainstream audience. The crowd at this particular show demonstrated his appeal to this wider range of music fan covering many different sub-genres in addition to those who belong to his almost cult-like loyal following.

The versatility he demonstrates together with an ability to captivate and hold on to this widening fan base only serves to promote folk music to people who would otherwise have run a mile in the opposite direction if they so much as heard even the slightest dinkle dankle of a banjo. Whenever I mention a folk artist to most people their facial expression moulds into something that quite clearly asks why haven’t I been institutionalised yet?  If artists like Seth can help persuade others that we who appreciate a little bit of folk amongst our tunes are quite safe to be out amongst the public, then this is no bad thing.

I’ve read some articles reporting how when he first started out some from various corners of the traditional folk scene often derided Seth attempting to downplay his music and style which I can only imagine was down to jealousy. Perhaps he does sometimes break off into less folk heavy and towards a more alternative sound but as an evolving artist this only showcases his many talents.

Tales from the Barrel House to the Ballroom

This was the final date on the second leg promoting sixth album, Tales From The Barrel House, whose initial limited edition release sold out almost as fast as Seth can fiddle to Kitty Jay (i.e. very). A general release has since been recorded with a couple of extra tracks and a DVD. It really does show this is his first independent album following the departure from his previous record label because it sounds so individual and fresh compared to the previous two (as much as I enjoy them in their own right). Solidifying his folk roots he recorded first track More Than Money down a copper mine and the rest of the album in the cooperage (The Barrel House of its title) playing every instrument featured, producing and mixing it all to boot.

From the lament of Blacksmith’s Prayer to the seafaring story of Salt From Our Veins and the timeless tale of The Watchmaker’s Rhyme, the subject matter he focussed on also relies heavily on these traditional folk roots covering mostly the forgotten trades of yesteryear. Closing with the gentler Apple of His Eye and the beautifully perceptive The Artisan Seth most clearly demonstrates his exceptional skills as a songwriter.

He is the Music Man

Beginning the set with More Than Money for which he played the banjo, Seth quickly picked up the mandolin while the band played straight into Blacksmith’s Prayer. He went on to exhibit his expert and flawless musicianship by following up with songs where he played his trademark fiddle, tenor guitar and even playing the violin pizzicato (plucking it like a guitar for those unsure). Added to his distinct emotional vocals and the support from the band, a truly electric atmosphere was the result.

Getting Jiggy With It

Seth’s music carries with it the same infectious quality epitomised by folk punk legends The Levellers. It encourages, slowly at first (think snake charmer), one’s legs to spontaneously start jigging about like they’ve been directly fed an electric current (think slightly tamer version of River Dance). Before I knew it while he began pouring out words via his pulsating heart to accompany his gradual build up to fiddling for England, a third or more of the crowd, myself included, were all jumping about like loons. Happy loons appreciating great live music though and hey no one was looking at us oddly here so it was all okay. No doctors in white coats watching from the bar, thankfully.

You could really feel the raw beauty of the elements within the hall. I’d even go as far as to say we were somehow transported to the ghostly Morwellham mining port on the bank of the River Tamar where stands the Barrel House the album was recorded at (there’s magic in folk, right?), such was the atmosphere they created as a collective up on stage.

Fiddler Freedom 

A newfound freedom was clearly audible with the return to older material seeing the jigging loons double in size now making us a sizeable majority as The Colliers, Setting of the Sun and John Lomas were played out in all their magnificent glory. The very haunting sounds of Preacher’s Ghost also featured as did a sensational rendition of Lady of the Sea which I’m sure was sped up so fast by invisible futuristic machines to get moving those few stragglers who hadn’t yet started looning (yes I made up that word).

The band took a break leaving Seth and his bass player to perform The Artisan, the bass requiring more of a melody than the typical bass chords. This song tells the story of a woodworker who, as he plies his carpentry trade, relives his life with each chip of the chisel and every stroke of the saw. I once passed out after chiselling a finger during a woodwork class at school (true story). The way this song really gets up close and personal I fully believe Seth could do as much justice to my chiselled finger turning it into a beautiful yet sad tale like he does here with The Artisan.

Fiddle Off Championship 2012

There was also the highly popular fan pleaser Kitty Jay, a song that builds up to such intensity before erupting in a near orgasmic explosion. With nothing more than his vocals, fiddle and a stomping right foot it is compelling and blockbusting rolled into one. You cannot help but remain transfixed as Seth fiddles like the continued existence of the universe depends on it.

The hard work and effort it takes to be this faultless while playing at such speed shows but through expressions demonstrating how much he thoroughly enjoys what this classic song has evolved into. I’m pretty sure with each tour and indeed each night’s performance he cranks it up a notch further in an attempt to out-fiddle himself. With this being the final night of the current run he didn’t disappoint although I am surprised he didn’t pass out immediately after or that there wasn’t a mass of smoke billowing from the fiddle or his hands. It gives me goose bumps just recalling it.

Life on the Road

Seth belongs to that subset of artists who seem to tour constantly and I’d have to agree with some who’d say his live performances far outstrip what the studio albums are able to offer given their limitations. They do have their own important place but with him touring so often as well as being a mainstay on the annual summer festival circuit fans can have the best of both worlds. This gig was my second Seth experience in less than twelve months and it most certainly won’t be the last with an October tour already announced. I do have just one question I’d like to ask. Where’s the full live album, please Seth?

Music of the Moment:

There's actually far too much for me to be able to squeeze it all in here like I did before. I used to listen to a lot of music as it was just going about more or less anything. This has increased loads since I've started putting together the podcast as I check out new music, new material from old bands and artists and lots else besides.

I know they're a band who have featured a lot previously as well as both opening and closing my first podcast but they truly deserve to be mentioned as often as possible. One Cure For Man have just released another new EP entitled The Lost contains three beautiful acoustic tracks and also features the sounds of a violin. It is a real treat.

Gathered is the latest album from Nick Burbridge of the McDermott's 2 Hours versus The Levellers fame, this time teamed up with Tim Cotterell.

T J Courtney has debut EP Into the Sky out now which sounds fantastic.

Finally for the moment, The Dreaming Spires are soon to release a new album (June) and have kindly sent me the radio edit for their new single Not Every Song From The Sixties Is A Classic.


I finished reading Joe Vampire by Steven Luna and it was superb all the way to the end leaving me wanting so much more from this newly turned vampire dude. It's just so fresh for a vampire tale considering it is a genre that has been (pardon the pun) done to death.

My next read is going to be Leiyatel's Embrace by Clive S. Johnson who also has sequel Of Weft and Weave due out very soon. I'm really looking forward to this first one.

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