by Ian Mann
February 19, 2013
An excellent evening's music making rooted in British traditional song but reaching far beyond these shores.
Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 17/02/2013.
The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock has run an acclaimed and successful jazz programme for a number of years and under the guidance of former artistic director Alison Vermee began to branch out into other genres under the banner “More Music At The Edge”. Events promoted under this strand have included the folk group Southern Tenant Union and the Cameroonian world music (for want of a better term) artist Muntu Valdo. A review of Valdo’s excellent performance can be found elsewhere on this site.
Under Alison’s successor Paul Brothwood the programme seems set to continue and Paul was rewarded by a healthy Sunday night turn out of around 100 for this folk performance by the husband and wife duo of Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. Lakeman’s name has appeared on the Jazzmann web pages on a number of occasions when he has been sighted playing guitar in his brother Seth’s band. He is an also a skilled arranger and acts in this capacity with the duo and his production skills have been deployed by brother Seth and more recently by folk/rock/punk veterans The Levellers with Lakeman’s honing of their sound widely being acknowledged as having given the Levs a fresh lease of life.
I’m less familiar with the work of Kathryn Roberts but tonight’s performance revealed her to be a talented, if not particularly prolific, songwriter and a fine singer both of her own material and of traditional and other songs. Roberts and Lakeman first met in the 1990’s folk/pop crossover act Equation which she initially fronted with her fellow Barnsley lass Kate Rusby. Instrumental support came from the three Lakeman brothers Sean, Sam and Seth. When Rusby left for a solo career she was replaced by Northern Irish singer Cara Dillon who eventually became Mrs. Sam Lakeman (it’s an incestuous world this folk business, not that jazz is any better!)
After a couple of albums Equation split into its component parts with the members establishing solo careers and Seth Lakeman achieving almost mainstream success with his robust brand of folk. Aided by Sam Lakeman Cara Dillon has also established herself as a successful solo performer whilst the Kathryn Roberts/Sean Lakeman pairing has also established quite a following if tonight’s turn out is anything to go by. The couple have released three albums, the minimally titled “CD1” (2001) and “CD2” (2003), both largely collections of traditional songs, and the acclaimed 2012 release “Hidden People” which primarily features original material.
The reason for the long hiatus between the second and third albums was the birth of the couple’s twin daughters which saw Roberts concentrate on the duties of motherhood for a number of years while Lakeman threw himself into supporting his younger brother’s burgeoning career. “Hidden People” represents a keenly anticipated and enthusiastically received return to the folk fold and the couple are clearly relishing the opportunity to perform live again, despite having their two five year olds on the road with them. In true folk tradition there was plenty of talking between songs with Roberts, a confident and sassy performer in the same down to earth mould as former colleague Rusby, regaling us with tales of family life and on the road experiences. Lakeman, who always seems faintly pissed off when playing second fiddle (or should that be guitar) in his little brother’s band seemed to be much more relaxed here punctuating his wife’s anecdotes with pithy interjections and clearly enjoying doing so (“I don’t always get given a vocal mic” he informed us at one point). Tonight’s show also revealed just what a masterful guitarist he is and what a fine accompanist. The rock presentation of the Seth Lakeman Band and the focus on rhythmic propulsion has sometimes obscured the subtlety of Sean’s playing.
Some of the humour of the couple’s delivery carried over into the songs but equally there was also plenty of the darkness and tragedy that seems to inform most traditional folk songs. Nonetheless the duo began on a humorous note with the risqué humour of the traditional folk song “The Lusty Young Smith”, Roberts delivering the outrageous double entendres of the lyrics with a twinkle in her eye as Lakeman provided suitably rhythmic and thrusting guitar accompaniment. The tune appears on the new album “Hidden People”
Roberts moved to the electric piano (the daughter of two music teachers she’s a highly accomplished pianist) to sing “A Lifetime Of Tears”, the duo’s first dip into the darker side of the human condition. The song also represented a first foray into the world of Americana, it’s a heart wrenching bluegrass tune collected by the couple from the Witcher family of Los Angeles with the bleak refrain of “there’s no darker prison than a lifetime of tears”.
The traditional song “The Red Barn” offered no respite, the tale of the gruesome murder of Mary Martin by her lover in the building of the title. He buries her body under the floor but the victim’s restless spirit appears to the authorities and leads them to her killer. This particular version of the tune seemed to be set in Suffolk but it’s a tune that has travelled all over the world. Multi instrumentalist Roberts spiced up the arrangement with bursts of flute in the instrumental passages.
No less disturbing was the tale of the “Huldra” (literal translation “the hidden people” and a handy album title), Scandinavian spirit women who live in the forest and lure unwary young men off the path and dismember them hideously after first having their wicked way with them. The addition of a dash of echo to Roberts’ vocal reinforced the sheer creepiness of the piece.
The duo’s interpretation of the much covered traditional song “Lord Gregory” was inspired by the version recorded by Maddy Prior and June Tabor on their “Silly Sisters” album. It’s yet another harrowing tale, this time of class, illegitimacy and death. The bleakness of the subject matter of many of the tunes made an interesting contrast to the homely sight of Roberts sipping at a cup of tea between numbers.
At this point the duo decided to introduce a little light relief in the form of the traditional Dorset tune “The Buxom Lass” which appears on their second CD. The lyrics have something of the same spiciness as those of the earlier “The Lusty Young Smith”.
Lakeman now left the stage to set up the couple’s CD stall as Roberts seated herself at the keyboard to deliver a moving rendition of her original song “The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs”, a reflection of the events of the 1984 miners’ strike and the effect it had on Roberts’ home town. Rather than coming to firm conclusions the lyric dwelt on the difficulties of deciding which side to support in the dispute, the struggles of conscience in deciding whether to fight for a cause or principle or whether to bow to financial expediency and the need to support a family. The song was written years after the event but is still a moving and admirably mature reflection of that time. The song was nominated in the category “Best Original Song” at the 2013 BBC Folk Awards, the title ultimately going to “Hatchlings” by Emily Portman. However Roberts and Lakeman were still among the prize winners when they scooped the award for best duo.
The first tune of the second set was unannounced but marked another excursion into bluegrass territory. This was followed by an interpretation of Tom Waits’ “The Ballad Of Georgia Lee”, one of Waits simplest and most affecting songs. It’s a tribute to the strength of Waits’ writing that his songs lend themselves so well to the interpretations of others. Even without his trademark growl nothing of their emotional impact is lost and Roberts’ delivery was suitably moving.
From the new album the song “Money Or Jewels” was a love song of sorts, albeit one with a suitably noirish twist.
“The Whitby Maid”, another traditional tune from the couple’s second album, was a racy tale of a young lady using her charms to relieve sailors of their money and possessions and utilising the express compliance of her father in the process. Roberts described the song as “ribald”, also an adjective that could have been applied to a couple of the items in the first set.
By contrast Peter Bond’s tribute to his late friend Joe Peel was a lovely elegy full of moving imagery eloquently delivered by Roberts at the keyboard.
Roberts’ own “Darling Isabella” was a playful homage to Mrs. Beaton and her famous tome delivered in the style of something from a musical revue. “That’s as close to Hinge & Bracket as we get” joked Roberts.
To close the couple returned to their new album and their cover of “Jackie’s Song” written by Don McGlashan of the cult New Zealand group The Mutton Birds. McGlashan’s song has much the same combination of rich lyrical imagery and emotional directness as the earlier Tom Waits tune. Movingly sung by Roberts it was a good way to conclude an excellent evening’s music making rooted in British traditional song but reaching far beyond these shores.
An appreciative audience called Roberts and Lakeman back to the stage with Roberts returning to the piano for a version of Tim O’Brien’s ballad “Safe In Your Arms”, a suitably warm conclusion to the proceedings on a chilly February night.
Although the music of Roberts and Lakeman was a little outside my normal comfort zone ( certainly not jazz, and in any case I usually like my folk music with a large dollop of rock on the side) I was still suitably impressed by the standard of singing and playing and by the duo’s interesting choice of material which visited several traditions around the globe whilst remaining firmly rooted in the British folk tradition. The couple’s presentation also exuded wit and charm with Roberts between tunes stories often also highly informative. This was an agreeably pleasant change for me and the duo’s music certainly struck a chord with the rest of the audience. Congratulations to Kathryn and Sean on their gong at the Folk Awards and on this evidence I’m sure that their star will continue to rise.
A glance at their website http://www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com suggests a busy year’s touring ahead.
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