Seth Lakeman – Live Review – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
By David Schuster, November 2018
Seth Lakeman comes on stage to a packed house at Leeds Brudenell Social Club. Most recently he’s been playing theatres and arenas across the globe with Robert Plant, so the chance to see him perform in such intimate surroundings is a rare one. To underline this, the gig has been sold out for weeks. It’s no surprise then that he looks happy and entirely comfortable playing to such a cosy gathering.
His folk-rock sound has a lot in common with Plant’s more recent albums, and there’s comparisons to be drawn with Jethro Tull, with whom he has also played. Less obviously, I find that his arrangements are reminiscent of Sigur Rós, conjuring up the rugged wildness of his Dartmoor home, in the way that band do the grandeur of Iceland.
Tonight, Seth has brought three other musicians with him, Kit Hawes on guitar and Ben Nichols playing double bass, which is a novelty to me but produces a fantastically rich sound. Completing the quartet is Evan Jenkins on drums.
The music starts dark and low, with the introduction to ‘Bright Smile’, taken from his latest release, The Well Worn Path. Despite the relative newness of the song, the crowd greet the opening bars enthusiastically. However, it’s when they move into the second track, the faster-paced ‘Take No Rogues’, that I get a sense of how well practised and tight the quartet are; Lakeman puts down his acoustic guitar and takes up a vintage Gibson, whilst Hawes swaps his red Telecaster for an acoustic. This is all done seamlessly, and in seconds. The Dartmoor-based musician is well known as a multi-instrumentalist, and through the course of the evening plays several different guitars, two different fiddles and something that looks like a bouzouki to my (non-expert) eye. However, both guitarist and bassist also regularly change instruments.
Like Billy Bragg, Lakeman, has a way of crafting tales of ordinary people performing heroic deeds in extraordinary, usually unpleasant, circumstances. Taking a moment, Seth introduces ‘Stand By Your Guns’, a tune by Frank Kidson. He explains that Kidson was a 19th century local boy from Leeds, whose interest in keeping folk music alive made him a founding member of the Folk-Song Society. This has an ominous pounding rhythm, played with the heavy end of drum sticks on a floor tom. Indeed, the whole track has a sense of the anticipated horror, felt by sailors in the hot confined spaces below decks immediately prior to a sea battle. It finishes suddenly with the ominous words “Be ready”.
This is also exemplified by ‘Solomon Browne’, which relates the tragedy of the Penlee lifeboat disaster. A total of 16 people lost their lives, eight of whom were the volunteer lifeboat crew that rowed out to the rescue. Genuinely: How is it that we, an island nation where you are never more 70 miles from the coast, rely on the RNLI charity to perform sea rescues? Imagine the outcry if that were the fire service!
Through the show there’s a good mix of the familiar, ‘Solomon Browne’, ‘Silver Threads’ and ‘The Colliers’, interspersed with the new; ‘She Never Blamed Him’, ‘Fitzsimmons’ Fight’ and ‘The Educated Man’, all from The Well Worn Path. There’s some great material on the new album, ‘The Educated Man’ is one of my favourites, and all are greeted warmly by the Leeds crowd. (Literally, by now it’s sweltering in the small venue). That’s not without its disadvantages; the Dartmoor frontman has to call a brief halt. “Hang on,” he says, brandishing his trademark fiddle, “it’s so hot and humid in here, I’m going to have to re-tune this.”
For the last two numbers the band leave the fiddle player alone on stage. The crowd sing along to ‘Portrait of My Wife’, which has the easy-to-remember chorus, “Raise your glass to the one you love.” In response there’s quite a lot of unsteady brandishing of plastic glasses waved in the air. He finishes the main set with a foot stomping rendition of ‘Kitty Jay’, which I know is one of his all-time favourite tracks, and which is received ecstatically by the audience.
After a short break the band return to the stage for the encore, but not before Seth places his order at the bar. “Four pints of Guiness please”, he shouts across the room. Adding with a smile and a shrug, “This is after all a drinking song,” as he and the band strike up another crowd-pleaser, ‘Drink ‘till I’m Dry’. They finish the set with ‘Race to be King’, which starts with bass player Ben Nichols playing the distinctive mouth-harp introduction, before switching back to the double bass. With the crowd all clapping along, and Lakeman’s fiddle soaring joyously over the top, it’s a fine ending to the show.