Friday, 7 November 2008

Emphatically Non-Hipster Non-Douchebag Recommendation Of The Week: Seth Lakeman

If you’re a live music fan growing tired of the perennial hipster douchebag presence at gigs, I’ve got one world for you: folk! I saw Seth Lakeman at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire yesterday, a virtually full 2,000-capacity venue containing – and I didn’t perform a full head count, but I feel confident in making this assertion – exactly zero hipster douchebags. No-one was there because it was the cool place to be. No-one just went because they wanted to be seen, or to brag that they’d been. It was so uncool, it was cool. Which immediately made it uncool again!

Ain’t technology a marvel? Anyway, the refreshing absence of HDs at the gig inspired me to sort-of resurrect this feature in honour of Lakeman.

I first heard of Seth Lakeman when his 2004 album Kitty Jay was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. I must still have been thinking that the award was still relevant and inspiring (in my defence this was before white male guitar bands were winning every bloody year) because I watched the preview show, which featured Lakeman. I was blown away by his musicianship and haunting, resonant songs, many of which were arrangements of traditional English airs.

Kitty Jay – reportedly recorded at a cost of around £300 – is a wild, windswept, poignant album, full of regret and valour and heartbreak and chivalry and longing, endlessly mournful and mysterious. It’s absolutely essential. Its centrepiece is the compellingly bleak “Farewell My Love”, which is obviously too distressing to make it onto the internet, so here he is performing the album’s title track the first time I saw him live, at Truck two summers ago:

His follow-up Freedom Fields is a more expansive, upbeat record, with more stirring percussion and songs about marching to war and grrr beating those pesky French/Dutch/northerners/whoever we happen to be fighting at the moment! Where Kitty Jay’s inspiration is drawn almost exclusively from Dartmoor myths, Freedom Fields looks to historical struggles and the birth of the idea of Englishness. Although it also finds space for a couple of offbeat songs like the one about a bloke who shot his girlfriend because he thought she was a swan. Here’s the video of “The White Hare”, the big, award-winning, slightly controversial single from Freedom Fields:

Sadly, Lakeman’s recent album Poor Man’s Heaven is no match for the previous two: with one or two exceptions it eschews the exhilarating fiddle-led stompers and emotive guitar ballads in favour of jangly, bland, mid-paced pop-folk, and also demonstrates a frankly disturbing obsession with shipwrecks. Opener “The Hurlers” is one of his best tracks, a dramatic and impassioned plea for freedom, and the gorgeous “Solomon Browne” tells the sad tale of the 1981 Penlee disaster with compassion and dignity, but elsewhere the album fails to hit the heights. It’s not a horrible record by any means. It’s just kind of nice and inoffensive, and it’s not what I want from a Seth Lakeman album. The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis thinks Lakeman is aiming for mainstream success with this record, but I firmly believe he’s got a better chance of that if he sticks to what he’s best at.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a recommendation! Here’s “The Hurlers”.

Since Lakeman is touring Poor Man’s Heaven last night’s show, while enjoyable, was not perhaps as good as I had hoped. Naturally the set list leaned heavily on the recent album, and Lakeman seemed oblivious to the fact that the show was lifted whenever he put his fiddle to his chin, which almost inevitably meant an older song. But when they came, they were terrific: “Kitty Jay” and “Lady Of The Sea”, performed solo, were mesmerising, Lakeman’s bow hand a blur, his insistent foot-drum reverberating. Other highlights were “Blood Upon Copper”, “Riflemen Of War” and “The Colliers” (aka “Hold Your Fire”). Through – once again – the wondrous magic of technology, here’s 13 seconds of low-quality video of “The Colliers” filmed on a mobile phone from quite some distance away:

The Empire is a lovely theatre, with conveniently placed bars and beautiful decor, and the acoustics are better than those of any number of other London venues, but it probably isn’t the ideal place to listen to Lakeman’s rousing tales of bucolic English folklore. The lights were unusually good – “Setting Of The Sun” was played amid tumbling prisms of white, blue, red and green light, and the glitterball was deployed sparingly and effectively – but I enjoyed seeing Lakeman at sunset on a farm in Oxfordshire more, and not just because he played better songs back in 2006. If you’re ever at a festival and he’s playing, please don’t assume it’s not worth bothering with that folkie nonsense – it’s his ideal milieu. (I mean, there were hardly even any beards in the crowd last night! Stupid clean-shaven urban types!)

It may not have escaped your attention that Lakeman is a rather handsome gentleman – indeed, round my house he is often known as Handsome Seth Lakeman. As well as the lack of hipster douchebags, the other remarkable aspect of the gig was the number of women in the audience (there was even a queue for the ladies’ toilet, not something I usually experience at sweaty indie venues); when I saw him on Admiral Neck’s favourite show BBC Breakfast recently, host Sian Williams seemed a little red-faced and flustered. It may be that his looks have helped him achieve more success and recognition – Poor Man’s Heaven, which despite Lakeman’s flirtation with dadrock is still a folk record, entered the UK album charts at No8 – than his folkie peers. But I’m sure that anyone attracted by his undeniable handsomeosity will find themselves seduced by his plaintive, soaring vocals, his entrancing melancholy and that hypnotic, uplifting fiddle.

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