Folk festival in review: Seth Lakeman takes to the stage

Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman - Credit: Paul Strange

This year’s “A Celebration of the Sidmouth Folk Festival” had already seen some superb performances, and last Wednesday’s evening concert at the Blackmore Gardens kept the bar set very high indeed.

Sonically it was a show of great contrasts – a support act playing traditional folk with minimal instrumentation followed by a contemporary folk-rock headliner using a vast array of electronic and acoustic equipment to embellish his act.

And, surprisingly, the radically different styles gelled rather well.

Seth Lakeman and Alex Hart duet together

Seth Lakeman and Alex Hart duet together - Credit: Paul Strange

First up were Cambridge duo Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. Formed in 2016, the pair huddle closely together around a single microphone, playing intimate duets on mountain dulcimer, dobro and guitar.

Clearly delighted to be working together – and with a natural intimacy that duos rarely possess – they have a strong line in tight, country-style vocal harmonies, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons or Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.

There’s even a touch of Sandy Denny about Sanders’s expressive, wide-ranging, crystal-clear and powerful vocal, which was heard to good effect on the traditional “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maids”. Here Savage provided delicate guitar picking and gentle harmonies.

As their set progressed – highlights including Savage’s own “A Thousand New Moons”, the traditional “The Riddle Song (I Gave My Love A Cherry”) with sublime slide work from Savage, and the traditional “Pretty Polly” – the audience warmed to them, responding with plenty of applause.

Although Sanders had tended to take the lead for much of their set, the spotlight fell on Savage for his take on Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. His husky understated vocal suited the song brilliantly, and it was a golden moment to savour.

Seth Lakeman and Alex Hart duet together

Seth Lakeman and Alex Hart duet together - Credit: Paul Strange

After an exceptional performance from Sanders and Savage – one of the stand-out moments of the folk festival – it was time for the headlining act to take to the stage.

Devon-born, Mercury Prize-nominated multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman announced his arrival with an uncompromising solo sonic salvo of amplified kick drum, bass pedal drone and furious fiddle. The rich and heady mix soared purposefully across the Blackmore Gardens as Lakeman rocketed into what was possibly one of the loudest shows of the entire Folk Festival week.

Briefly pausing for breath, Lakeman introduced us to multi-instrumentalist Alex Hart, who joined him for much of the powerful set that followed. Hart (who’s worked with Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre), provided harmony vocals plus sympathetic harmonium and guitar, complementing Lakeman perfectly.

Then we were off to “Freedom Fields”, the story of a Civil War battle at Plymouth set to an anthemic groove, before moving on to “Silver Threads” – a 19th-century poignant love song, with Lakeman on strummed viola.

“Blood Red Sky” – with its thumping kick drum and plaintive harmonies – lifted the set even higher, preparing us for “A Pilgrim’s Warning” from Lakeman’s “A Pilgrim’s Tale” album, released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ sailing from Plymouth. Lakeman’s extensive use of effects – including loops and echoes – was pushed to the max for this evocative piece. Lakeman followed up with “Bury Nights” (also from the “A Pilgrim’s Tale” album), and “The White Hare”, both numbers featuring more exquisite harmony singing.

Other set highlights included “Solomon Browne” (about the 1981 Penlee Lifeboat disaster, the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew in action) and “The Colliers” (which recalled the 1934 Gresford Colliery disaster in which 266 men were killed by an explosion and an underground fire).

Lakeman lightened and lifted the mood with “Changes”, a reflection of relationship issues that had some of the audience up and dancing before he played a couple of solo pieces – “Lady of the Sea” (with strong fiddle accompaniment) and the poignant “Portrait of My Wife”.

I’d last seen Lakeman in 2017, when he’d been with a full band and was on dynamite form. Four years later, in this stripped-back but mega-loud version, the folk-rock superstar did not disappoint.
More power to his elbow!

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