This was an exquisite gig, Sam Lee and Friends playing a solo set [no support] in two wonderful segments. There were songs from Lee’s first album Ground of its Own, reviewed here, and from his recent second, The Fade in Time, reviewed here.
This is folk music at its most traditional and modern, nothing paradoxical in the re-presenting of songs Lee searches out and learns from the gypsy/traveling community largely across the British Isles and then translates through contemporary arrangements to continue their transmission beyond the oral/sung tradition that would otherwise diminish over time. Even if that tradition could survive, Lee and Friends are introducing this to a new and wider audience, and we are privileged to receive.
The contemporary arrangements I mention are themselves rooted in tradition and modernity – courting contradiction again – but this is embraced by the instruments used and the interpretations played. Sam Lee himself on shruti box, when playing it, provides an amplified resonance of sound as it pulses beneath melodies; Jon Witten on Mongolian dulcimer taps out delicate soundscapes, provides plaintive to upbeat backdrops on electric piano, and plucks and strums on ukulele; acclaimed violinist Flora Curzon provides beautiful defined melodic lines as well as deeply atmospheric strokes, and percussionist Josh Green delivers both touch and considerable energy through his various rhythms, including the range of a tabla tone to a booming on his bass gourd.
I stress the above to celebrate this dynamic band but also because on record with, for example, the addition of jazzy trumpet and other, the arrangements are expansive and full of depth when complementing the traditional songs. It was natural to wonder how this would be matched in a live set with a smaller collective, but the performance was as refined to powerful as on record. For example, Jonny O’ The Brine which opens Lee’s latest album is on record full of trumpet and effects; live at the Phoenix it was as fulsome in the energy and volume produced on stage – Green’s driving beat contributing considerably here.
Sam Lee’s vocal is majestic: sonorous clarity perhaps best describing, though it quite simply has to be heard. There is an excellent article on Sam here which provides huge detail about his life growing up and the passion now for seeking out and archiving on record and in performance the songs he sings. Sam himself informs us of elements of this at the gig, for example, when explaining the personal significance of a song like Jews Garden that is played, and the background story to the beautiful ballad The Moon Shone on My Bed Last Night, also played. Other gems performed often with background stories – well, every single song shone – were The Ballad of George Collins, Bonny Bunch o’ Roses, Moorlough Maggie, Phoenix Island, Airdog, and the sweet Lovely Molly which was sung a cappella, sans microphones, as an encore.
If you can catch Sam Lee and friends on tour, you absolutely must. It goes without saying you must also buy his/their records.