As I stepped into the concert hall, I was greeted by a dimly lit stage bordered with flags and strewn with exotic instruments: a koto, tabla drums and a six stringed ukulele. I knew from first glance that it was going to be a show like no other.
The lights went down, even lower, and out stepped Sam Lee with six accompanying musicians. I expected them to kick off straight away with ‘The Ballad of George Collins’, the dance-y opening track to Lee’s Mercury nominated debut album, but they didn’t. Instead, we started with a disclaimer: this was not Sam Lee’s show alone (it had, after all, been billed as Sam Lee and friends).
Irish traveller and singer of the traditional tunes of his people, Tommy McCarthy, was invited up to the mic stand. His hands were tucked firmly into his pockets and he began to address the audience in a broad Irish accent. I struggled to make out what to think of him, at first glance. He seemed almost self-conscious and shy in his temperament, but as soon as he started singing that all melted away. His voice was like no other I’ve ever heard before. It was lilting and resonant with a strong, wonderfully controlled vibrato. He was completely unaccompanied, but he needed no accompaniment, as his melodies and the stories they told (of traveller life) were powerful enough to speak for themselves. My personal favourite of his was ‘Down the Road’, a lament written by McCarthy’s grand-father about being forced to stop travelling and settle in a house. It was an incredibly moving experience to hear, first hand, the oppression which travellers face through such a beautiful melody.
McCarthy was not, I must stress, Lee’s support act. He was an integrated part of the show – throughout Sam and his band would perform a few tracks and then Tommy would sing a few a’capella. We’d witness the living tradition of traveller culture and then see Lee’s ‘bastardised’ (his own words) arrangements of their music. It was a fascinating cultural experience to see the raw ingredients of traveller music (represented by McCarthy) and then, alongside that, how imaginatively altered these could be by the world-music influences Sam Lee brought to the table.
Sam Lee’s set, it must be said, was incredible; perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. An incredible sound was produced by his rag-tag orchestra of cello, violin, percussion, trumpet… and Jonah Brody (who seemed able to play every instrument under the sun). The band proved to be incredibly versatile. They could be energetic one moment (‘The Ballad of George Collins’), dramatic and sinister the next (‘The Jew’s Garden’) and then, all of sudden, tender and heartbroken (‘Black Dog and Sheep Crook’). This last song I mention was a particular standout – an old Shepherd’s ballad about loving a woman who aspires for someone better. It was heart wrenching. The koto (the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever heard) was played with delicacy under Lee’s baritone, adding an oriental twist to a traditional British tune.
The show was, as I’ve come to expect from folk gigs, split into two halves; for the first of which, Lee and his band played predominantly non-album tracks. These were other songs he had collected on his travels around the country and arranged. This half drew to a close with ‘Phoenix Island’ – a song which required audience participation. As the song drew to a close we were given a melody to hum, which the audience did with enthusiasm and, due to the acoustics in the Turner Sims, I could feel my seat vibrating beneath me. I left was left with a feeling of loss when the first half drew to a close, so I was relieved when the lights dimmed and Lee and his band took to the stage once more. The second half of the show was just as good as the first and featured more songs from Ground of its Own. One of these, the appropriately titled forthcoming single ‘Goodbye My Darling’, wrapped up the show. This provided a perfect closing. There was no false ending, no promise of an encore – just a parting note with lyrics that promised a return some day.
I hope that Sam Lee and his friends do return to the Turner Sims, hopefully to perform to a bigger audience (as the venue was only just above half capacity), because the show wasn’t just an excellent musically, but an eye-opening cultural experience too.
Sam Lee’s album Ground of its Own is out now and his new single ‘Goodbye My Darling’ is set for release on 11th March.