SETH LAKEMAN Freedom Fields (Relentless)

I was introduced to the music of Seth Lakeman via his second album, “Kitty Jay”, which I placed on heavy rotation prior to seeing him support Billy Bragg. Not only was it an excellent album, but it was also one that translated fabulously well to live performance, especially given the livewire energy of Lakeman’s stage act.

So why haven’t I been similarly bowled over by his latest album, 2006’s “Freedom Fields”? Perhaps because, to me, it sounds like his talent has been curdled by commercial concerns. The fact that “Freedom Fields” has been released twice – once by his previous label, then again six months later in resequenced, recovered and remixed form by his new one, EMI affiliate Relentless – could lend some credence to this suggestion.

For whatever reason, “Freedom Fields” seems a harsher, more strident, less ingratiating album than its predecessor, both in sound and song. There are moments – for example, the repeated “Hold your fire!” hook of “The Colliers” – that make me wince, hardly helped by a compressed production that squeezes any semblance of dynamics out of this CD. Everything’s louder than everything else, forcing Seth to yell over the top. The single “The White Hare” was one of the tracks remixed for this reissue: I haven’t heard the original, but here this potentially lovely song is fettered by a pedestrian percussive plod that’s steering it straight to the heart of Radio 2 territory. And is this really the kind of album that should be carrying a credit for “additional programming”?

The final indignity is a flyer in my copy advertising Seth Lakeman ringtones, a 3-a-pop tax on anybody lacking the wherewithal to convert the songs they’ve just bought into ringtones themselves. Something rotten here, methinks.

SETH LAKEMAN / FRANK TURNER / ALAN POWNALL Open Air Theatre, Regents Park, London 24 August 2008

Unfortunately, several too many glasses of Chardonnay compromised my usual standards of journalistic rigour on this occasion, so I have to piece together my impressions of the evening six weeks after the event from some scrawled notes and a scammed setlist. Full marks first to this rolling green venue, probably the most elaborately catered concert I’ve ever been to; it was a bit like a giant (if expensive) picnic.

Of the support artists, Alan Pownall was an utterly unmemorable bloke-with-guitar. Frank Turner, however, was close to revelatory, sweary and passionate like a parental advisory Billy Bragg. Following his claim that he’s touring all over the country I yelled an encouraging “Play Preston!”, and yelling at gigs is very much not in my nature.

The last time I saw Seth Lakeman he was opening for Billy Bragg, and delivered one of those rare support sets that left me wanting more. His music was dynamic, vibrant and exciting, all qualities that flickered only dimly tonight. Maybe it was due to the presence of a full(er) band, or the preponderance of material from the increasingly Radio 2-flavoured folk-pop albums he’s produced since the Mercury-nominated “Kitty Jay”. The shock of the new has curdled on stage as well as the studio, and in this predominately mid-paced, middle-of-the-road set only a wound-up “Kitty Jay” really excited. The omission of key songs from his more recent work – no “Cherry Red Girl”, no “The White Hare” – only added to the evening’s lingering sense of mild disappointment.

SETH LAKEMAN Poor Man’s Heaven (Relentless)

Seth Lakeman’s fourth is another album of increasingly homogenised, glossy folk-pop. Whilst it’s commendable that he still clings to traditional subject matter – moving from his traditional Dartmoor stamping ground to tales of seafaring disaster – in sound and presentation “Poor Man’s Heaven” is far less erudite. Too often the album uses thumping percussion as dramatic shorthand, opener “The Hurlers” being a case in point, a tactic doomed to failure by the dynamically squashed production that renders everything louder than everything else, in the modern style. (If only he still recorded his albums in his kitchen.) ”I’ll Haunt You” might be the best of this brief album’s 11 tracks, still managing to conjure an air of mystery despite the worst efforts of the unsympathetic production, but even here there’s no sign of the shock of the new that accompanied his earlier work.              

 If “Poor Man’s Heaven” was your first Seth Lakeman album you’d probably be swept away by its combination of folk instrumentation, traditional subject matter and rock-like drive and power. If, however, you’ve followed Lakeman since his excellent Mercury-nominated “Kitty Jay” you might instead be saddened by the diminishing returns on offer.

SETH LAKEMAN / DELTA MAID Academy 2, Manchester 14 November 2010

 

It’s a little strange to hear Delta Maid transmute from addressing the audience in a sing-song Scouse accent to singing with a voice that’s pure whiskey-tempered Nashville, but that’s what she does. Playing what is, by her own admission, country blues, another refreshingly open-minded Academy 2 audience accords her considerable respect. Her own songs, though - inspired, we learn, by colleagues at Wythenshawe Hospital and a friend who had a mid-life crisis aged 25, perhaps not yer traditional country blues subject matter – are comprehensively eclipsed by a cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”.

               

Does anything scream “Crossover!” louder than the heavy-handed metronomic thump of a drum kit? It’s the defining sound for much of Seth’s regulation-length 80 minute set tonight. His albums following the Mercury-nominated “Kitty Jay” have increasingly become slaves to that rhythm, and they dominate the setlist. “Hearts And Minds” adds a dash of Billy Bragg-styled social commentary and “The Circle Grows” loses the percussion to gently deregulating effect, but mostly these are hermetically-sealed, efficiently executed folk-rock story songs of the kind that flop relentlessly off the Lakeman Plastics conveyor belt.

               

The night comes conclusively alive, however, when he ditches his backing quartet for a totally solo “Kitty Jay”, a furious explosion primed only by Seth’s vocals, footstomped percussion and supercharged fiddle. That’s the sound that so captivated me when I saw him supporting Billy Bragg back in 2006, and the remainder of the evening seems like comfortable, undemanding pandering in comparison.

 

SETH LAKEMAN / ELLA JO The Hat Factory, Luton 11 March 2011

 

Ella Jo is a local-to-Luton acoustic guitar-toting singer-songwriter, and, fair play to her, she certainly seems to be putting the effort in. Her songs have an intricacy that’s beyond many who operate in similar territory but, sadly, there’s still nothing staggeringly original about them.

               

Which – ha! irony of ironies – is an accusation that could also be levelled at the headliner. Seth’s between-song patter is firmly stuck at the wedding singer/local radio DJ level – I mean, really, who in 2011 still says stuff like “We’re going to slow it down a bit now with this next one”? This Trio tour is a self-described attempt to strip down his songs, but, really, they’re hardly “Tales From Topographic Oceans” in their recorded form. So, he plays his regulation 80 minutes of comfortable contemporary folk, all efficiently executed but, even allowing for the reduced instrumentation, pretty much identical to how he’s performed these songs before, to the extent that one of my Sethaholic gig buddies singing along to opener “The Hurlers” even gets all the “spontaneous” vocal interjections right.

              

There are a few new songs: the aforementioned gig buddy likens “The Blacksmith’s Prayer” to something off “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, and it does have a pleasantly avant garde drone thing going on, although it’s probably fair to say that the titular gentleman isn’t praying for heroin or flagellation. “Hard Road”, on the other hand, sounds like a load of other Seth songs poured out of a blender, so maybe not quite as progressive.

               

As usual for me and a Seth gig, it comes gloriously alive with a solo “Kitty Jay”, the one moment when he realises his considerable potential, but the rest of the evening, polite and pleasant as it undoubtedly is, doesn’t tug at the heartstrings for me.

               

Hats off, as it were, to The Hat Factory, by the way, as for a small venue the sound and sightlines are pretty good, even for those of us skulking at the back of the room.

SETH LAKEMAN / SAM CARTER Club Academy, Manchester 23 February 2012

Sam Carter seems to be in the same position that Frank Turner occupied when I saw him supporting Seth Lakeman back in 2008, just on the cusp of breaking it big in folk and possibly wider circles. Either that or he’s packed the crowd out with an unusually high proportion of well-wishers. He makes more than most do out of the timeworn man-with-acoustic-guitar format. Having heard his “Keepsakes” album the day before I’d be suspicious if it were just the vague familiarity winning me over if it wasn’t just the album tracks that impressed. The likes of “Yellow Sign” and “Pheasant” – knowingly introduced as the inevitable song about a failed relationship – impress as much as previously unheard material such as “Lumpy’s Lullaby”, written for a then-unborn niece, and an acapella closer whose name has been rendered indecipherable in my scribbled notes. Lightly brushed with a social conscience without going the full Billy Bragg, with an occasional acerbic twinge and twang suggesting a young Richard Thompson, Sam deserves to be more famous than however famous he is already. 

Seth’s fame, on the other hand, might have reached saturation point already, playing in the basement at the (accommodating enough, admittedly, and acoustically very fine) Club Academy whereas his last Manchester visit was to the much larger Academy 2 upstairs. He’s also taken to self-releasing his latest album via his website (although a proper commercial re-release is imminent) which might suggest a scaling back of operations in the face of increasingly selective appeal. (Y’know, just like Radiohead.)

There’s been some almost literal progression in Seth’s music, though. The quartet take to the stage to the sound effects of yer genuine working village smithy, and opener “More Than Money” has the kind of heavy industrial (revolution) beats that first make me think that Seth has joined the late 20th century and bought a drum machine. Then there’s the winding multi-partness of “The Blacksmith’s Prayer”, which seems to have been subject to some inflation since it was played on last year’s trio tour. “Changes” still has that mystical, cyclical appeal that marks it out from the bulk of the material, but much of the setlist is in that audience-friendly folk-pop style he patented on the very fine “Kitty Jay” and has been grinding mercilessly into the ground on subsequent albums. He plays a magnificent, impassioned solo version of “Kitty Jay”, as usual, almost matches it on “John Lomas” and “Blood Upon Copper” and doesn’t quite hit the spot with “The Hurlers”, “Solomon Browne” and “Race To Be King”, all of which lapse into the formulaic.  Still, there’s some hope that he no longer seems to be running on the spot musically, although he’s still playing 80-minute-almost-to-the-second sets – is he trying to fit each night on one CD or sump’n? And he still doesn’t really do spontaneous, everything surrounded by the freeze-dried suspicion that every other night of the tour will be identical to this one.

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