Sunday, 27 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Kathryn Roberts And Sean Lakeman - HOME, Manchester

I owe an apology to Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman: I took these tickets thinking it was Sean’s fiddler brother & folk superstar Seth that I was going to see – but I was swiftly won over to these darlings of contemporary folk, who have their own unique alchemy

The Dartmouth-based husband and wife have twice won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award’s ‘Duo of the Year’ and have been working together for over 20 years; this gig, as part of the Manchester Folk Festival, kicks off an extensive anniversary tour.

Both accomplished, polished musicians, Lakeman has been playing guitar since he was six and is an award-winning producer for such artists as Frank Turner, Billy Bragg and Bellowhead while Roberts plays keyboards and flute in addition to her ethereal Mary Black/Kate Bush/Tori Amos-inflected vocals.

Their most recent album, Personae, is a mix of traditional and self-penned numbers, and looking at the glossy promo pictures and packaging, I expected a primped, cool power couple, instead what I saw was entrancing - wry and whimsical marrieds, telling funny stories about themselves and their twin daughters and teasing each other throughout the set. (Roberts’s ‘Roman’ dress in particular came in for some arch comments from her other half). They have taken years away from performing to raise their children but it only seems to have enriched their art. The songs are beautiful – a mixture of original & traditional music - with Lakeman’s virtuoso and depthful playing anchoring the tunes, but there is a distinctly dark Gothic thread running through the set, despite the jauntiness of the songs, such as in 'Tribute Of Hands' which gives the mythical history of Antwerp, involving some gruesome chopping off of limbs. 'Independence' is another personal song, gently and poignantly highlighting the changing bond between parent and child, but a stunning version of Sandy Denny’s 'Solo' is probably the highlight of the night – and apt as Roberts was lately part of Denny’s iconic band Fotheringay.

Roberts and Lakeman are authentically charming and engaging and their banter and family anecdotes segue fluidly into song - and the gig, in Home’s small, darkened theatre, added to the intimacy. If you get an opportunity to see them live, take it. As much as the album’s layered and polished music is pristine and captivating, at least half the attraction in seeing the couple live is to be brought into the intimacy and warmth of their world, peeping out between songs with raconteurs' skill.

I must give a special mention to the entrancing support musician, 20 year old piper Brìghde Chaimbeul. One of Scotland’s fastest rising folk stars, from the Isle of Skye and a native Gaelic speaker who grew up in a musical family, Chaimbeul also takes her inspiration from piping traditions across the world, including Eastern Europe and Ireland The result is a peculiar, engrossing and delicate drone sound that hypnotises. As a performer Chaimbeul was initially a shy, winsome presence, neglecting to even introduce herself, but as her set progressed, she became more sure-footed, unfolding the story behind each song featured on her debut album, The Reeling. Her jigs, reel and ballads, played on a distinctly feminine and quite dinky set of small pipes, became compelling, direct and swirling. She left the audience pleasantly narcotized, and exited the stage quietly, with a simple smile and a nod.

Reviewer - Tracy Ryan
on - 18/10/19

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