A POWER cut, a piano and a bottle of wine. Such were the beginnings for one of the new songs unveiled by the fine folk duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman.
That tune, Year Without A Summer, closes their new album Almost A Sunset, and is based on Mary Shelley’s sodden holiday that created Frankenstein.
You don’t have to travel to Switzerland to find inspiration, and the song was written one wi-fi-less evening at their home on Dartmoor. Roberts is originally from Barnsley while Lakeman is hewn from the Devon lands and from something of a musical dynasty.
Many of their songs are inspired by books. Roberts, a prolific reader, shared her love of fine words and colourful characters from the past (human and animal). Ropedancer, a standout on the album, is based on one Charles Blondin, a Victorian funambulist (a tightrope walker to you and me).
As she sang, Roberts’s voice soared, still a wonder and undimmed by the years. Roberts and Lakeman are not prolific, but each of their albums (the first in 2001) are crafted with great care and love of language and form.
This was reflected in the quality of the performance, which was consistently at a level only a select few can reach. Blondin once carried his (presumably soon to be and now ex) manager on his back across a chasm – but this concert never felt like a nervy high-wire act. We were in the safest hands. Like her Barnsley peer, Kate Rusby, Roberts and Lakeman occupy the more accessible end of the folk spectrum and even their more obvious material is full of melody.
This wonderful venue felt like an apt staging post for the duo, entertaining and selling beautifully scented, organically made albums that you can’t buy on Amazon or eavesdrop on Spotify.
The 16-strong setlist focused mostly on the new record, interspersed with deft nods to their past. Roberts was mostly at the keyboard, barefoot, gracefully leaning to the left as she drew out the emotion with exquisite control.
Her husband, meanwhile, was in his brown familiars, and his face mirrored the patterns he coaxed from his guitar. While Roberts’s voice can take on all comers, Lakeman’s playing, in its variety and feel, was equally magnificent.
The setlist itself was a marvel, full of welcome changes and shifts of style and pace – including the obligatory bawdy one (The Lusty Blacksmith) and a more left -field moo (Cows Of Mystery, which could have been awful but was anything but).
After 90 minutes, all too soon they were gone like the May blossoms that adorn their songs. Memories of this lustrous concert will linger longer.
Review by Paul Rhodes