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.
WEST Country folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman plays The Crescent, in York, tonight when both old and new will be to the fore.
Performing an intimate set in a duo with Plymouth vocalist Alex Hart to a seated audience, Lakeman’s focus will fall on both his new album, Make Your Mark, and on the 15th anniversary of the gold-selling Freedom Fields.
Newly reissued in a deluxe edition on CD and double vinyl in coloured and black limited editions, Freedom Fields comes with exclusive bonus content, such as unreleased tracks and rare demos and with a signed art print from selected stores.
“This is my debut at The Crescent,” says Devonian Seth. “I’ve previously played the NCEM and Fibbers, and I love playing York as there’s a great music scene in the city.
“It’ll be me playing with Alex Hart, and Joe Francis, from Winter Mountain, who’s from Cornwall – over the border – will be supporting. I’ve worked with him a few times before and he’ll probably join us on harmonium.”
Reflecting on playing in this format, Seth says: “I’ll be honest, all the creative industries are struggling with the need to control costs at this time, so you use less of your ‘cast’, but you still get out there and there’s a magic in the duo format.
“It allows you to play different songs and you can move things around in the set list more than you can with a five-piece – and it’s nice to go out and concentrate on the voices.”
Seth is overjoyed to be playing with fellow musicians to live audiences once more on a 14-date tour that began on November 2. “I always think it’s important if you can get people into a room to perform music together,” he says. “Connecting through technology can work but playing in a room is the best way of connecting.”
Make Your Mark, released on Seth’s label Honour Oak Records on CD and digital formats on November 18 and on vinyl on December 10, was written during his Covid-enforced 18 months off the road.
Fourteen songs were recorded at Middle Farm Studios in Devon earlier this year as restrictions eased, with Seth producing his 11th studio album himself.
“The pandemic gave me a real determination to come out musically stronger and I really dug deep into myself,” he says. “Being able to record and play with the band again was really quite spiritual.”
Joining Seth on the recording sessions were long-time bassist Ben Nicholls, who has toured the world with Seth since his early days; Benji Kirkpatrick, from Bellowhead and Faustus, on bouzouki, banjo and mandolin; Alex Hart on backing vocals and Toby Kearney, principal percussionist at the Birmingham Conservatoire, on drums.
Reflecting on how his song-writing has progressed since landmark indie-folk album Freedom Fields brought him the Folk Singer of the Year and Album Of The Year awards at the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Seth says: “I’ve branched out more [from violin] onto guitars and banjos that I now see as a tool for writing songs.
“I’ve always been interested in lyrics and the process of putting together a song, and maybe as you get to middle-aged life [Seth is 44], you feel more in tune with who you are and what you feel – and that comes with wisdom.
“I’m now looking at a more personal journey in song-writing. When I made Freedom Fields, it was more a case of writing in the tradition but with a modern context to it. I was in the depths of that as a writer for a good few years as I loved intertwining the old and the new.”
Themes on Make Your Mark range from the environment to love, self-belief to death. “They are songs about the bigger things: life and death, but also they’re celebrating lives lived, and I can see why that is challenging, because such subjects are heart-breaking, but that’s why sea shanties are so popular now because they’re so powerful in their emotional impact,” says Seth.
Living amid the beauty of Devon, he has felt the need to express his thoughts on the environment. “Around the coast, it’s getting swallowed up by second-home owners, but the argument goes that without the tourism industry there wouldn’t be the building industry, and you need to keep them both going.
“Here on Dartmoor, a lot of land is being sold off and it becomes a constant thing for us to moan about, when green land is getting sold. I certainly touch on it with my farmer mates, and it is a concern.
“I have three children – twins aged eight and a five year old – and climate change is right there as the biggest thing to be worrying about for their future.”
Writing about love, the most commonplace theme of all since song-writing began, Seth notes a change in his focus: “In your 40s, you start thinking about your parents and those things you have maybe taken for granted and really should cherish,” he says.
“Then, at this age, thinking about death, it’s about understanding your mortality and coming to terms with it, like losing my best friend suddenly. There’s a lot of his presence and personality on this album.
“I found it like therapy, expressing myself in song, paying some sort of homage to him. I felt his presence as I recorded it.”
Self-belief may seem an unexpected subject for Seth, but he says: “I’ve always had a problem with self-belief and security and confidence, being the third child, with my two brothers [fellow musicians Sean and Sam] being the flag-bearers and me being the black sheep.
“That feeling still exists and it’s probably part of the fuel that keeps me going. Regardless of money, that’s probably at the root of who I am and why I keep doing it. There’s not a lot of money in this line of work. I should have been a chef or a comedian!”
Self-belief, says Seth, is something he returns to time and time again. “I’m never happy with an album, never completely content, because contentment is a dangerous thing. You can be proud of what you’ve done, but you must keep your feet on the ground and keep pushing yourself,” he concludes.
Seth Lakeman plays The Crescent, York, tonight, supported by Joe Francis, at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £20 from seetickets.com/tour/seth-lakeman; more on the door. Please note, seating is unreserved.
The track listing for Make Your Mark is:
Hollow; The Giant; Love Will Still Remain; Bound To Someone; Make Your Mark; Coming For You Soon; the first single, Higher We Aspire; The Lark; Side By Side; Fallen Friend; Shoals To Turn; Underground; Change and Constantly.
THE Black Swan Folk Club is still closed under Covid restrictions, but the York club is mounting two concert evenings this autumn, one online, the other at the NCEM.
“We are starting to put a few things together that are the start of our journey back to regular live music,” says club organiser Chris Euesden after booking Chris While and Julie Matthews for October 15 and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman for two hour-long shows on November 17.
While and Matthews will be playing their 7.30pm online concert exclusively for the club and will conclude the night with a live question-and-answer session.
Tickets are on sale at: whileandmatthews.com/virtual-tour. “Once you’ve purchased a ticket, you’ll be able to watch the streamed performance whenever you want,” says Euesden. “Chris and Julie have been guests at the club and played for us in concert at the NCEM many times over the years and it’s always been a great evening.”
While and Matthews have been performing together for more than 25 years, clocking up 2,600 gigs, appearing on 100-plus albums and writing hundreds of original songs. Last year, they released their 11th studio album, Revolution Calls.
Sponsored by the Black Swan Folk Club, Roberts and Lakeman’s concerts at the National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, will start at 6pm and 8.30pm, each featuring the same setlist.
“2020 marks 25 years of making music together for this wife and husband duo,” says Euesden. “Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have long established themselves as one of the UK folk scene’s most rewardingly enduring partnerships.
“To celebrate and acknowledge this milestone, the couple will revisit and reinterpret songs that span their career. From the early days of folk supergroup Equation through to 2020’s On Reflection, with a nod or two along the way to their extracurricular musical adventures, the evening promises a whistle-stop tour through their artistic journey to date.”
Limited seating will be available for the November 17 shows. Each household/support bubble will be seated around small tables positioned at a two-metre social distance from others. Tables can accommodate up to four people in the same group. Check out the guidelines for these concerts via: ncem.co.uk/events/kathryn-roberts-sean-lakeman/
Tickets for Roberts and Lakeman will be on sale at email@example.com from October 9. If you bought a ticket for the duo’s postponed April 22 gig, the NCEM team will be in touch soon to discuss your options.
ALL shows at the Black Swan Folk Club,
Peasholme Green, York, are postponed until the end of August in response to the
Most prominent among them is the Roland
Walls Weekend from June 5 to 7. Formerly known as the City of York Folk Weekend,
it has been re-named this year after the driving force behind both the folk
club and the weekend, who died last June.
This postponement policy also applies to
the club’s concerts at the National Centre for Early Music and The Crescent.
In the club’s latest newsletter, organiser
Chris Euesden says: “We’re going to review things at the end of May to see
where we stand. This includes the Roland Walls Weekend, which was to
have taken place in June.
“If you’ve already bought tickets for any
of our events that have had to be postponed, you can get a refund from the internet
ticket provider or you can hang on to your tickets, as they will be valid for
the new date.
“This applies to all events except The
The Crescent on April 5, which is cancelled. If you have already bought tickets,
you’ll be able to get a refund from seetickets.com. Go to their support
section for further details.”
One Black Swan concert during the folk
furlow is yet to be postponed: Chris Cleverley, presented by Broken Record on
June 25. At the time of writing, it is “still hoped” that this night of songs
on the theme of deteriorating anxious minds, damaging gender constructs and
mystical tales of the occult will go ahead. Watch this space; ticket
information is yet to be announced.
Reflecting on the present state of no-play, Chris says: “Well, we’ve never issued a newsletter quite like this
one before. As the current situation has changed from day to day, so has the
“With the [Government] announcement of the closure of pubs and other music venues and
the uncertainty surrounding the amount of time this is going to go on for, it
seems like a good point to let you all know what’s in place at the moment.
“It’s highly likely there will be more
changes, but we’ll do our best to keep you all informed on our website, blackswanfolkclub.org.uk,
via Facebook, Twitter and with additional newsletters.”
Wheels are in motion already, however, for re-arranging postponed concerts.
Maz O’Connor, a Lake District singer-songwriter
of Irish roots, now living in East London, is transferring her March 26 Black
Swan gig to The Basement, City Screen, on September 9 with tickets on sale at
O’Connor, who studied literature at Cambridge
University, has been commissioned to write songs for the British Parliament and the
Royal Shakespeare Company and is devising a piece of music theatre.
Eliza Carthy Restitute Live/Through That Sound concert at The Crescent on April
10 is re-scheduled for January 24 2021, with tickets on sale at seetickets.com.
the Robin Hood’s Bay singer, songwriter, fiddler and self-styled “modern
English musician”, released Restitute as her first “solo” album of traditional music
last May, recorded at her North Yorkshire home on the coast.
Carthy at The Crescent will be the Restitute band of Ben
Seal, Ben Somers, Willy Molleson and David Delarre, complemented by a support
slot and special guest appearance from Saul Rose.
well as the Restitute material, Carthy and co will perform selections from Through
That Sound (My Secret Was Made Known), her upcoming April 1 album of original songs
recorded with Fife producer, arranger and band member Ben Seal.
Roberts and Sean Lakeman’s 25th anniversary concert on April 22 at the
National Centre for Early Music has a new date of November 17 (box office, ncem.co.uk).
husband-and-wife duo will mark this milestone by revisiting and reinterpret
songs spanning their career, from the early days of folk supergroup Equation to
2018’s album, Personae, plus a nod or two to their extracurricular musical
club is in the process of re-scheduling Grace Petrie’s May 18 show at The
Crescent. Drever, McCusker, Woomble, alias three of Scotland’s busiest
musicians, Kris Drever, John McCusker and Roddy Woomble, are booked for The
Crescent on August 24 (box office ents24.com), so keep an eye open for what may
change or not.
ahead, Black Swan gigs are in the diary for Anthony John Clarke on September 10;
Christine Collister and Michael Fix, September 18; Maria Dunn, September 24;
Sam Kelly & Jamie Francis, October 8; Lucy Farrell, October 15; Sam Carter,
October 22; Charlie Dore & Julian Litmann, November 19, and Martin Carthy,
Eliza’s father, on December 3.
Across the wider folk scene in York, hurdy-gurdy musician, wildlife biologist, broadcaster, song and story writer and York Hedgehog Rescue founder Toni Bunnell’s Tracking The Changes show on March 29 at The Basement, City Screen, has been postponed.
Music sessions are suspended at:
The Maltings, Tanner’s Moat, on Tuesdays;
The Golden Ball, Bishophill, on Sunday evenings;
The Three Legged Mare, High Petergate, on Friday evenings;
Havin’ the Craic at The Fox, Holgate, first Wednesday of each
French & Breton, Eagle & Child, High Petergate, second