Like most things, getting to the live gigs you want to see in the UK when you live in South Africa is a matter of timing. Last year my only concert in a five-week European trip was the wonderful Delines in Newcastle though, to be fair, I did give up seeing Richard Thompson for the fourth time for two weeks in France and Italy. This year things were different and, including Morris dancers at Hadrian’s Wall at dawn on the first of May, an especially auspicious day in British folk music circles, and a low-key but thoroughly entertaining folk club concert in a church in a field on a hill somewhere south of Carlisle later in the day, I got to no fewer than a dozen live events if you don’t count a visit to Kent v Middlesex at Lord’s with a mate whose son was playing that culminated in three of us being denied entrance to the pavilion for not wearing ties (by a security bloke who wasn’t wearing a tie) even though one of my companion’s father had captained England more than 70 years ago and the other’s father had one of the ground’s pavilions named after him. Actually, I thought being denied entry under those circumstances was even better than getting in. Quantitatively a good trip, then, but qualitatively it was through the roof as among those performers were five of my current favourite acts. But first there were difficult choices to be made.
The visit was always intended to be planned around a folk music weekend at the splendid Kings Place that the venue, concentrating on instrumental folk from the British Isles, was calling No Voices, but the two ends of the trip were proving a tricky choice … arrive earlier or stay later? At the near end, Big Thief and Yo La Tengo, each a band occupying a special place in my listening, would be in London and each had released a particularly fine album in 2022, but I had seen them both before, Yo La Tengo twice. At the far end were two artists that had grabbed and held my attention in a big way over the last couple of years, Mdou Moctar from Niger, arguably the current African guitarist I listen to most often, and the remarkable activist poet and electronic musician Moor Mother, each with his and her respective band. So, I chose that option. Both have featured in these columns before but there’s now a fair bit more to say a bit later. The spoiler alert is that I am still thrilled with my decision.
The Sadies – Colder Streams
Big Thief were part of the previous column, too, but the subject of favourite rock bands presents an opportunity to mention that not only Yo La Tengo but that other always dependable and frequently sublime bands like Calexico, the Drive-By Truckers, Superchunk, Built To Spill, whom I have sometimes overlooked in the past, and especially the Sadies also made excellent albums last year. The Sadies effort is a particularly bittersweet affair. The Canadians, whom I sometimes thought might be a more consistent Moby Grape for the 21st century, and might have made it onto the original ‘Nuggets’ compilation had their garage stuff been released in the sixties, have been so consistently good for such a long time – more than a dozen albums over 25 years – that’s it’s hard to be sure that ‘Colder Streams’ is really their best ever, but that’s the way it soon seemed to me. Singer and guitarist Dallas Good definitely thought so. Tragically, though, he died between its completion and its release. It seems that the band is continuing without him, but whether or not that hugely tuneful guitar-driven mix of timeless psychedelia with top drawer folk- and country-rock that seemed to have reached its apogee here, its sonic affection for the Byrds now apparently geared more towards the Gene Clark than the Clarence White versions of that band (and always as affection rather than affectation), can ever reach these heights again, this record clearly demonstrates why Willy Vlautin of those Delines I mentioned before once said that he stopped going to Sadies shows because they were so good he could no longer trust himself not to gush embarrassingly when speaking to them afterwards.
Yo La Tengo – This Stupid World
Foregoing seeing Yo La Tengo again was hard. By the time they released the fantastic ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’ in 1997, the New Jersey trio appeared to have reached a place pretty close to the peak of American indie rock, and had sucked me in completely with their seemingly endless supply of melodically strong but still mysterious, and even impressionistic songs, working minor melodic miracles no matter how much noisy guitar skronk Ira Kaplan was pouring into the mix, all leavened with the regular insertion of yet another lovely, fragile Georgia Hubley ballad. A string of reliably fine albums has followed and, if none have ever again quite reached the heights of ‘Heart’, much the same can be said of any other band operating in roughly the same musical territory. But ‘This Stupid World’, which is getting on for their 20th LP, depending on how you count these things – and different discographies often count them differently – comes closer than anything perhaps since the gorgeous ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’ and the titularly spectacular ‘I’m Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass’. Their Hoboken hometown notwithstanding, elements of Krautrock have seldom been completely divorced from the Yo La Tengo rhythmic psyche and the opening song, Sinatra Drive Breakdown, makes the connection quite beautifully. The Hudson River city may be best known as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball, not necessarily in that order, but when Yo La Tengo really fire, as they do here with happy regularity, with Kaplan’s guitar channelling its inner Sonic Youth on Fallout and lifting the title track to clamorous levels you might have thought they’d abandoned, I can imagine a world in which they might come a close third.
Lankum – False Lankum
While we’re talking about Krautrock, the first footage I saw of Irish band Lankum was on YouTube, they were called Lynched – after the band’s Lynch brothers, though to demonstrate political sensibility and appease political sensitivities they changed their name to that of the murderer in one of the bloodiest ballads in the English-language folk tradition – and guitarist Darragh Lynch was wearing a Neu! t-shirt. I could get sidetracked here and go on about the German duo (Neu!, for those who haven’t being paying attention all these years, were and still are one of my favourite bands in any style of music ever) and how you really should own at least their first three albums – ‘Neu!’, ‘Neu! 2’ and ‘Neu! 75’, by which time you’ll surely want the less impressive and controversially released fourth anyway – and how, if it wasn’t for Bill Frisell, Michael Rother might be my favourite guitarist in the world, but I’ll simply mention that a 50th anniversary box set was released last year (called, unsurprisingly if uninspiringly, ’50!’) and get back to Lynched. They sang a long, really slow traditional song entitled Rosie Reilly whose accompaniment was a drone that would have impressed LaMonte Young and possibly even a young John Cale, that still gives me goosebumps and that is probably my most-watched bit of YouTubism. That song has not appeared on the band’s typically superb yet incrementally improving albums, the fourth and latest of which, ‘False Lankum’, was released earlier this year.
Lankum were playing at the Barbican while I was in London, their biggest gig ever, they said, just down the tunnel from the Banksy mural of a Basquiat figure being frisked by the British police (look out for it if you’re ever there), but there were no tickets to be had. I even investigated the possibility of a day trip to Bristol to catch them, but that gig was also sold out. Next time then. I was disappointed but, as Seven Wright once said, you can’t have everything … where would you put it? However, while I was on my annual pilgrimage to Northumberland I received a message from my daughter who had managed to get us returns for the Barbican gig, at face value from a site that charges its commission to the seller rather than the purchaser. So there we were, right near the front, and the whole of London Irish – the community rather than the currently precarious rugby club – seemed to have turned out for the event.
Although their instrumentation – mainly acoustic guitar, accordion/concertina/harmonium, uilleann pipes and fiddle, and, just occasionally, a bloke who wandered onstage from time to time to bang the biggest drum I’ve ever seen – much of their repertoire (they kicked off with The Wild Rover) and their Irishness might suggest that newcomers might know what to expect, that would be to overlook piper Ian Lynch’s hugely imaginative use of electronics, the way their manipulation of traditional reels and such turns the tunes into fairground horror soundtracks or the music to which ancient and not always benevolent ghosts might march into eternity, their spine-chilling four-part vocals and the music’s gimlet-eyed stare into the darkness, and, of course, the mighty drone.
When, after a minute or two of that drone, which is identified on ‘False Lankum’ as Fugue 1, Radie Peat, who sometimes sat on the stage floor to play the harmonium and sometimes sat on a chair playing the concertina while she manipulated the harmonium’s bellows with her foot, started the show with “I’ve been a wild rover for many’s a year”, their glacially-paced version of what most will know as a rowdy drinking song, originally and now again a ballad of remorse and unkept and unkeepable promises that makes slowcore bands like Codeine or Low sound like Sun Studios rock ’n’ roll, the audience let out the kind of roar most acts would hope to get at the end of a particularly successful show. That level of audience enthusiasm never flagged as Lankum picked out and picked on material from across their career, rendering each choice as uncompromisingly played as the next.
Just to be clear, this is a sitting-down band, yet the excitement they generate matches just about anything I’ve seen. The American old-time instrumental Bear Creek, for example, a repetitively simple but relentlessly rousing tune, built and built for what seemed fully ten minutes without respite until a good part of the audience appeared to have reached a kind of ecstatic altered state.
Around half the main set, before three encores, was taken from the current album with the ‘False Lankum’ opener, Radie’s ballad of the terminally broken-hearted, Go Dig My Grave, closing with the same deliberate intensity as they had started and New York Trader, a traditional song of superstition, slaughter and sailing on the sea the stated moral of which is “never go sailing with a murderer” a special highlight. It has a happyish ending that isn’t always foreshadowed by the musical maelstrom along the way.
Lankum may be a band that plays traditional folk music but, as they keep telling anyone who’ll listen, they’re far from being a traditional folk music band. Remember what I said about my feelings for Neu!? Lankum are headed fairly inexorably in the same direction.
One Leg One Eye – … And Take The Black Worm With Me
Late last year a little record label called Nyahh Records, from Ireland’s County Leitrim, released an album so obscure that I couldn’t find it on Amazon or Spotify and couldn’t buy it when I went to the artist’s live gig because the limited initial pressing had sold out, yet that became arguably my late favourite of 2022 and that I still probably listen to more than any other. One Leg One Eye is the nom de disque of Lankum’s Ian Lynch and ‘Black Worm’ is the result of his sonic experiments with his beloved Irish folk song during lockdown. I was eventually able to contact the label directly and get one from the second CD run, though my actual copy is still in the UK.
Essentially, it’s what you get when Lankum’s two main musical drivers – achingly long, slow traditional songs and dark, dense soundscaping – are taken to their logical extreme. It has been suggested that the album has as much to do with drone metal/dark ambient bands like Sunn O))) as any kind of folk-related stuff you might be able to imagine because of the thickly textured bed of sound that is its most distinguishing characteristic, but the difference between this and those metal subgenres is the relative lack of sludge and grind, even using those terms as positive elements, among Lynch’s blissful noise.
Although Radie Peat gets most of Lankum’s individual vocal attention, Lynch the singer is pretty special in his own heavily accented and ruggedly distinctive way and the three songs on ‘Black Worm’ – to go with two instrumentals – are an unforgettable, if not necessarily easy, listening experience. I found myself listening to the extraordinary 12-minute epic, I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep, over and over, almost as a default soundtrack to the last few months and the even longer, equally traditional Bold And Undaunted Youth is as imposing. Measured against those two, the album’s strange but weirdly tuneful closer, Only The Diceys, just half as long, sounds like a bizarre approximation of pop music as it sways along on a persistent guitar arpeggio that could conceivably have been lifted from an old soul song in some alternative universe, but the earworm it creates lasts forever. It comes with a most unsettling video on YouTube but what it’s all about it seems only the diceys will know.
Ímar – Awakening
The magnificence of that Lankum concert may have been untoppable but each of the others more than delivered, and each in its own way. Take that No Voices weekend at Kings Place for a start, which is appropriate since it’s where my live trip began. I had seen the amazing concertina player Mohsen Amini – Iranian-Scots, since you ask, but with an English mother – leading his trio, Talisk, at the 2019 Cambridge Folk Festival. They had closed Saturday night in the main tent and, if the top of a tent is properly called the roof, they properly raised it, with the excitement, energy and breakneck speed of their playing (on squeezebox, fiddle, guitar and Scottish folk music) up there with anything I’ve ever seen in any genre, and to an audience whose average age was probably about half that for the other festival acts. Ímar, a quintet whose other members are Irish, English and from the Isle of Man, no less, and whose music reflects that variety in an equally exciting but arguably more traditional way, are Amini’s other group. Here he blends in more as a band member where the group is the focus even though all the members get the chance to demonstrate their remarkable individual skills, than in Talisk where he is clearly the frontman and star, stamping his foot to a metronomic house music beat, virtually shredding on his concertina, standing on his chair urging the audience to ever-greater displays of enthusiasm and generally being ridiculously animated and ludicrously talented proof that sitting-down acoustic bands can be just as invigorating as standing-up electric ones. ‘Awakening’ is Ímar’s third album and each is well worth getting, but it’s live that they truly shine.
Leveret – Forms
Saturday night at No Voices was introduced by Ian A Anderson, singer, guitarist, former editor of the much-missed fROOTS magazine and lifelong delver into and passionate proselytizer of the endless virtues of what his magazine called local music from out there. While that local music could just as easily have been – as it often has – throat singing from Central Asia or valiha playing from Madagascar, in this case it was Eleven Magpies (eleven is for health in the nursery rhyme), a guitar/mandolin/violin/cello instrumental quartet from his Bristol hometown who played a lovely, gently experimental set of tunes that flirted with folk, but equally with jazz and classical forms, as they warmed up for the main act. That was Leveret, a trio of superb English musicians who anyone who has spent any time with contemporary English folk music based in the tradition will surely have encountered in some or other guise. In fact, two of them had been encountered that very evening, but in disguise. It was revealed during their set that the fiddle and concertina players wearing animal-head masks as they played for the all-female Boss Morris dancing in the foyer had been Leveret’s Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron. I had seen Sweeney before in Bellowhead and with Harbron in Fay Hield’s Hurricane Party, as well as leading his own band, and Leveret’s third member, the ubiquitous melodeon player Andy Cutting, on successive nights in 2009 with Martin Simpson and June Tabor as they celebrated the 70th anniversary of the wonderful Topic Records label. To see them together, however, in what is really quite a remarkable group, was a big deal in my live life. Essentially, they improvise, intersect and interweave on traditional English mainly folk-dance tunes, many of which are incredibly obscure, often without really knowing who will kick the tune off, who will take which part, who will play which harmony, how long the thing will last and so forth. According to the band, they don’t practise much together and Cutting thought, during lockdown, that he would either finally learn to read music or build a shed. The shed won. Yet they are apparently telepathically connected, so tight is the playing without ever sacrificing the feeling of musical freedom they seek. ‘Forms’ is yet another must-have Leveret album, much of which they played on the night, but, once again, it might only be live that you get the full effect of their brilliance. The following afternoon fiddler Sweeney launched his latest album, a duet with electric guitarist Louis Campbell. The launch predated the official release so there were no CDs to be had, but they played the album, track by track with Rob Harbron acting as soundman, as Sweeney told fascinating stories of their compositional method.
Brìghde Chaimbeul – Carry Them With Us
Brìghde Chaimbeul, Ross Ainslie & Steven Byrnes – LAS
I love the sound of bagpipes, though less the marching band stuff (I’m with Hamish Henderson and Dick Gaughan as they sing in the inestimably great Freedom Come All Ye, “Broken families in lands we’ve harried will curse Scotland The Brave nae mair, nae mair”) than the astonishing solo and pipes-in-a-band-with-other-instruments players that are all over modern Celtic folk music. But it’s not only the Irish, Scottish or even Northumbrian pipes either … I’m as likely to be attracted to a good Galician or Bulgarian piper, or indeed the surprising use of the bagpipe on Amerindie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel’s superb ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’. It’s probably that drone I referred to earlier. Anyway, Ross Ainslie is among the very best of the modernists and Brìghde Chaimbeul from the Isle of Skye (you can more or less get by pronouncing her name “Breeja Campbell”) is a fantastic newcomer who released her outstanding second album, ‘Carry Them With Us’, at about the time of the concert, so the two of them together promised to be very special indeed, especially given the fact that they had made an excellent album together last year and that guitarist/bouzouki player Steven Byrnes would be joining them for some of the show. They played the less well-known smallpipes, tuned to C, rather than the more common Highland bagpipes, which gave the concert the feel of a recital rather than the Caledonian gathering or sword-dancing competition you might be imagining. And, if you’re thinking that the sound of two sitting-down pipers playing might be a bit like the sound of one hand clapping, only louder, that would ignore the incredible sensitivity with which each of them played. Ainslie looks like a rock star who might once have played loose forward for a Scottish rugby team, plays more flamboyantly than Chaimbeul and does all the talking, Chaimbeul doesn’t say a word, hugs the pipes to herself and sways rhythmically from side to side as if in a trance, yet somehow without excluding the audience from the experience (Banish The Giant Of Doubt & Despair off her own album is the sound of what I’m trying to say), but kicks up enough dust on the reels to bury any lingering scepticism. They played solo, together and with Byrnes’s guitar accompaniment on a few tunes. The tunes from ‘LAS’ are more extroverted, perhaps closer to what you might expect from a Scottish piping record, though they also play Bulgarian tunes. ‘Carry Them With Us’ is quieter, more introspective, and haunting, where Chaimbeul plays a droning harmonium as well and sings a little in her Gaelic home tongue and the unexpectedly powerful use of the saxophones of master soundscaper Colin Stetson (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Tom Waits, Tim Hecker and Gorecki) take much of the album well away from a conventional folk music place even though more than half of the tracks are traditional and the inclusion of a classic pibroch roots the record as much in the piping past as in a potentially thrilling future.