To trace Kathryn Roberts’ and Sean Lakeman’s history, you have to go back to the bright-eyed days of Equation. A meeting of Kathryn and Kate Rusby from up north and the Lakeman brothers from Devon, they formed something of a folk super-group in the 90s, a decade when the media was largely indifferent to such a concept. Kate was subsequently replaced by Cara Dillon and two lasting relationships have resulted, as well as two outstanding musical partnerships. Although a young family has interrupted their musical lives Kathryn and Sean returned in 2012 with the excellent Hidden People and the follow up, Tomorrow Will Follow Today, keeps the standards high with another superb collection of mostly original songs and two trad rarities.
There’s a story I’ve been fond of telling, to anyone who’ll listen long enough, about Kathryn and Sean and being press-ganged into a folk club on a wet and windy Sunday night. It’s a story about how modest expectations, ignorance and prejudice can be turned on their head. Okay! So we’re only talking folk music here, but then it’s about the power of that music and in its own way, the evening was life changing for me. It was one of the most memorable gigs of my life and permanently changed the way I thought about music. By the end of the evening I was a babbling fool gushing at them with excitement and for once, it wasn’t just the beer talking!
Had I taken a straw poll amongst those who also witnessed the gig, I’m sure many would have confirmed my impressions and also perhaps put me in my place. A goodly proportion already knew what I had just discovered, that Kathryn and Sean are very good at what they do and have quietly been going about doing that for some years. To a large degree operating beneath the hoo-ha of media attention and keeping things simple, if they didn’t grab headlines, it wasn’t as a result of their performances. Kathryn’s dreamy voice, skilled piano and flute and Sean’s superb understated guitar style delivered a strong and varied set of songs that continuously spiked the emotions.
There were of course distractions on their career path and Sean was busy as a lynchpin of his brother Seth’s band, also producing the hugely successful run of solo albums including the Mercury Prize nominated Kitty Jay and the record that saw Seth signed to a major label, Freedom Fields. The latter also netted two Folk Awards, but more significantly achieved Gold sales status. On the back of this Sean found himself much in demand as a producer, working with The Levellers, Frank Turner, Billy Bragg, Imelda May and Bellowhead, amongst others. Then there was the small matter of twin girls, born to the couple a year or so down the line from that gig, with all of the attendant pressures of trying to be a family. Although it didn’t stop them all together, their appearances were necessarily restricted and thoughts of a new record were put on hold.
Kathryn re-emerged as part of the Cecil Sharp Project in 2011, but it was the following year that Hidden People, their first duo album in almost a decade was released. In many ways it probably caught everyone by surprise, with a big expansive sound boosted by numerous guests including The Levellers Mark Chadwick, Stu Hannah, Caroline Herring, Cara Dillon and brother Seth. The album rightly saw them recognised as Best Duo at the subsequent Folk Awards, with The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs, a moving tribute to the fortitude in the face of defeat, also nominated in the Best Original Song category.
Thankfully, there’s been no such wait this time and the new album is with us. Tomorrow Will Follow Today appears a natural enough follow up too with the same blend of a couple of notable dips into the tradition and the rest and majority of the album being self-penned. What is different however, is that it’s mostly just Kath and Sean this time around, yet despite that it’s still a powerful sound, not without overdubs, but also closer to the live experience. Like all of the best records the power is enhance with each subsequent play.
One of the two trad arrangements opens the album and as the sleeve notes suggest Child Owlet – what a curious name – is indeed a shocking tale of betrayal and gruesome murder with a dash of spurned incestual seduction promoting the grisly outcome. It comes from the Child collection and is fairly rarely performed, although Maddy Prior has recorded it twice, once with Steeleye Span and claims to have come upon it via Ewan MacColl. Kathryn sings it with gusto over Sean’s solid, multi-layered and very full guitar as it plots a tricky syncopated course around the melody. There’s a sudden burst of electric lead from Sean too and odd vocal highlights created by heavy reverb and echo.
It’s worth noting, although it comes towards the end of the album, that the other trad choice, The Robber Bridegroom, is another rarity and another gem with it. It many ways it sounds almost live, although a trailing flute under Kath’s voice at the start betrays an overdub here and there and again Sean’s guitar is fulsome. Searching for the song online is a frustration as there’s now a musical based on the Grimm’s Fairytale that shares the plotline, but the sleeve credits the source as Derek and Dorothy Elliot, which probably links back to Kath’s Barnsley roots.
Back to the sequence, however, and half way through track two I’m an emotional wreck. It’s a lovely tune and Kath’s piano and Sean’s guitar seem to lock in an embrace, but 52 Hertz is sweet but a devastatingly sad bit of anthropomorphism, as the song of a whale is out of tune with the others in the ocean. There’s a subtle lift with the multi-tracked voice on the chorus and I can’t seem to type as my eyes flood – at my age – I know – I’m hopeless – but this is a beautiful song, so perfect in its way.
A Song To Live By is another sublime piece that drops down to just the piano and Kath’s voice, a simple little tune with a lullaby’s calming lilt as it offers kind words to her daughters. The way the trusty piano is recorded gives it that natural feel of the keys and hammers on the strings that makes it sound so real and personal. It’s a love letter to a child’s (or children’s) potential, knowing that however much you wish it they will not always have their way. Simple, yet clever, honest and again very moving.
If the album has a gentle heart it also has teeth and the title track is a blues tinged protest song. Above an ominous kick drum, Sean’s guitar snakes while Kath’s voice soars with righteous rage as she sings, “We’ll get together and drink to your health, as the country gets poorer and we grow in wealth.” We are on a course that no one seems able to stop as Tomorrow Will Follow Today. The theme is revisited two songs later in Down, Dog! With much more of a folksong melody and combining layers of guitar and piano with a big choir of voices around the chorus, it questions what happens to the ambitions to make a difference. At the heart of our problems are the lack of those who actually deliver on their promises and Kath chastises, “Where are the noble intentions? Where is the man of his word?”
These two protest songs sandwich one of two real curiosities, the true story of La Moneca (Queen Of The Island Of Dolls), the story of a floating memorial, created by a hermit in memory of a drowned child. It’s made all the more affecting by the voice of a young Lakeman (presumably) at the start. Sean’s muti-layered guitar, Kathryn’s keys and the thoughtful addition of accordion from Pete Thomas (the only guest slot), lock onto a magical cascading tune. Rusalka is the other and follows Down, Dog! with a dreamy song about a river mermaid to a tune that has just a hint of the story’s Russian origins. The combination of the vocal and guitar meodies is once again sublime and so cleverly done, but without nagging showiness.
There’s room for a bit of fun, with The Banishing Books lusty take on a song plucked from Thomas Durfey’s Songs Of Wit And Mirth. The original was written at the end of C17th or into the start of the following century, although the theme still stands up today. This rewrite is given a delightful dancing tune, with Sean’s guitar again working the melody, while Kathryn adds flute and her voice is again multi-tracked to add another variation to the sound, over a hand-clap rhythm.
It may just be me, but the closer Soft The Morning Sun seems to hint at House Of The Rising Sun in the guitar figure, although the sentiments here are completely different, with another beautiful love song, but one spiked by a separation that has just a hint of danger as Kathryn sings, “Never marry a brave man, a man who is lost to a cause.” It’s a tender and bittersweet finish.
Whilst this album may not have the fanfare of their return after a decade or the all-star guest list it’s none the worst for it. It’s simply Kathryn and Sean doing what they do best and as we established a while ago, that is something very good indeed, in fact I’ll raise that to amongst the very best. Everything about the album oozes quality and Kathryn’s voice, although perhaps over the years more rarely heard than her Equation contemporaries, is every bit their equal. She is one of the best singers around, period. Her piano and flute play their part as instrumentation is also superb, with Sean’s guitar, sounding so economical and effortless as it weaves it’s ever more complex rhythmic and melodic course through a great set of songs, filled with vim, vigour, wit and wisdom, with a soupçon of such sweet sorrow, but above all love.
Review by: Simon Holland
Tour Dates with Support from Hattie Briggs*
*except 27th March & 1st May
Full gig list here: www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/gigs