The gothic bell tower of St Mark’s Church in Dalston cuts an imposing figure in this clear spring night, but inside the church’s crisp white walls and high vaulted wooden ceiling the atmosphere is warm and convivial for the first night of Sam Lee’s Temples Tour, a small series of shows in churches across London. Ragged bunting adorns the performance space centred on a double bass in the middle of one wall, as the congregation gathers and take to the bar and fold-out seats set out in a semi-circle around this point. It’s a huge turnout and there soon aren’t enough chairs to hold everyone, but everyone is happy, greeting one another and chatting. Many in the crowd are friends of Sam Lee and the award-winning folk club he co-founded, The Nest Collective, and there seems to be no more fitting way to celebrate the launch of his second collection of songs, The Fade In Time, than with a gathering of friends.
St. Mark’s itself also has a particular significance for Lee, which he reveals after the explosive applause that signalled the arrival of him and his five-piece ensemble subsides: “I basically live behind that wall,” he says pointing to the rear of the church. “So this is like playing in the living room which I don’t get to go into very often,” he says with a grin beneath his tousled hair, as the opening jaunty guitar of Over Yonder Hill sets in. The lament has long been a staple of the band’s live set and the confident groove begins to work its entrancing charm, as the droning notes from trumpet, violin and a small shruti box at Lee’s side sharpens its sinister edge. Meanwhile Moorlough Maggie, which Lee describes as “a thank you to the Earth” usually delivered at the end of long nights trading songs, builds from Flora Curzon’s restrained violin into a feverish rundown between drums, double bass and Jon Whitten’s Mongolian dulcimer flourishes.
During lead single Blackbird’s tragic tale of a young girl cast out of her community after falling pregnant to a soldier, Lee sways and loses himself in the song’s bones-deep roots and the simmering tension conjured by the interplay between Josh Green’s deft percussion and Steve Chadwick’s blaring trumpet. The ancient pull of these songs also seems to work on the crowd gathered here tonight as it is rare to hear an audience sing in such communal harmony as when Lee leads them through the choral refrain of exile ballad Phoenix Island, before calling a brief interval for the audience to refresh their cups.
“Right, that’s it! Party’s over!” Lee announces, “Back to the miserable folk songs!” as the band return and lean into rumbling pro-Napoleon ballad Bonnie Bunch Of Roses. Of course, there’s a fair share of (gallows) humour to go with the doom and gloom, as Lee introduces disco folk stomper The Ballad of Georgie Collins as “A song to get you dancing. It’s about STD’s, and dancing is the best way to catch them!” Each song has a story to tell and Lee is an affable and knowledgeable collector, enthusing on each song’s origins from 13th century Lincolnshire to 19th century Ireland and relating anecdotes about the gypsy travellers he learnt them from, making the night an education as much as an entertainment.
Some are loaded with poignancy such as The Moon Shone On My Bed Last Night, the last song Lee learnt from his mentor, Scottish traveller Stanley Robertson, which in turn was the last song Robertson learnt from his aunt Jeannie at her dying bedside. “So, the only rule is you mustn’t learn this song from me, please,” he quips with a knowing grin, before feeling his way into the song. Throughout the set he maintains as much eye contact with audience members as possible, making sure the songs connect and hit their mark, while his lilting tenor takes little emotive flights. Particularly on Airdog, a hunting song that depicts the dance of death between dog and hare as lovers, Lee explores every inflection and corner of the lyrics and melody to rapturous effect, as sparse piano chords hang echoing in the air around him.
The night closes with Curzon, Green and Whitten joining Lee for accapella hymnal and The Fade In Time closer, Lovely Molly. While the song was recorded with the full Roundhouse Choir for the album version, it loses none of its forlorn resonance for being stripped down to a quartet as the weaving, spine-tingling vocals of Lee and his cohorts fills St. Mark’s walls. Once the last tender strains of the song have faded and the foot-stomping applause has died down, Lee gathers the audience and crew at the far end of the church for a group photograph, commemorating the evening and the people that made it possible. Friends, banter and miserable folk music? The best way to spend a Tuesday night.
Review by: James MacKinnon
25 MAR – 19:00 RADIO 2 FOLK SHOW SALFORD,
28 MAR – 20:00 BRIGHTON CORN EXCHANGE BRIGHTON,
13 APR – (ALL DAY) FALMOUTH: GIVING VOICE FESTIVAL FALMOUTH,
28 APR – 20:00 EXETER PHOENIX EXETER,
29 APR – 19:00 TRURO TRURO,
30 APR – 19:00 BROADWELL,
01 MAY – 20:00 SALISBURY: ROUTES SOUTH WEST SHOW SALISBURY,
02 MAY – 19:30 CORSHAM: ROUTES SOUTH WEST SHOW CORSHAM,
03 MAY – (ALL DAY) BRISTOL: ROUTES SOUTH WEST SHOW/BRISTOL FOLK FESTIVAL BRISTOL,
04 MAY – 19:00 EMBERCOMBE: SOLO TALK ONLY EXETER,
05 MAY – 20:00 BRIDGWATER: BRIDGWATER ARTS CENTRE BRIDGWATER,
09 MAY – (ALL DAY) ROUNDHOUSE: VOICES NOW LONDON,
16 MAY – 11:00 DAY OF FORAGING WITH SAM IN SUSSEX (PLEDGE OFFER) NEAR LEWES,
16 MAY – 21:00 SINGING WITH THE NIGHTINGALES (PLEDGE CAMPAIGN EXCLUSIVE) NEAR LEWES,
17 MAY – 15:00 GROUP SINGING LESSON WITH SAM (PLEDGE CAMPAIGN EXLCUSIVE) LONDON,
Special Levels Collective Evening
As part of Folk Radio UK’s ongoing partnership with Bridgwater Art Centre called “The Levels Collective” we have a number of upcoming special evenings including Sam Lee and Friends on TUE 5TH MAY, 2015 8pm
Tickets an details here
The Fade in Time is out now
Pre-Order via: Amazon