Following his career breakthrough with Kitty Jay, an album recorded in a kitchen for £300, Seth Lakeman has had successful career that has epitomized the importance of the Bright Young Folk movement in the UK. Seth’s powerful voice, kinetic fiddle playing and songwriting excellence propelled him to folk superstar status in the late noughties, finding Top 10 album success and instantly becoming folk royalty. His seventh album, Ballads of the Broken Few, officially confirms Seth as an establishment figure in this genre, sharing his album with newcomers Wildwood Kin in a move that can be seen as cultivating the next generation of acoustic artists.
Part of the spectacle of seeing Seth perform live is that you are never quite sure which version of the Seth Lakeman Experience you are going to get. There are the raucous gigs involving a four-piece band, the intimate solo performances and the crowd-pleasing festival sets. His recent visit to Cambridge saw a combination of these identities in a performance that, whilst played to a seated audience, still had the performative vitality that Seth has made a career out of.
A stage filled with guitars and fiddles surrounded an incredible drum kit, featuring an orchestral bass drum and a myriad of snares, cymbals and cajons. Following an incredibly moving set from Wildwood Kin, Seth Lakman and his band took and opened with “The Courier”, one of Seth’s darkest, most foreboding singles. Whilst energetic in its own way, this choice of opener would actually inform a performance that would showcase Seth’s more vulnerable songs. “Solomon Browne” and “Kitty Jay” tug at the heartstrings as tales of woe within beautiful arrangements, yet the most potent example was “Portrait Of My Wife”. For this ballad in which Seth accompanied himself on the fiddle, he stepped away from the mic and led the crowd in a moving rendition.
Seth’s songwriting can be viewed as detailed accounts of the past within a contemporary folk setting, but he was to confound expectations with tracks from his latest album. Wildwood Kin joined him on stage, these three cousins amplifying Seth’s Americana-inspired songs with gorgeous bluegrass harmonies above Seth’s resonator guitar and droning fiddle. In this context, Seth appeared as an export of the Mid-West more so than a native of Dartmoor, and these songs were the most refreshing addition to his live act for a long time. That is not to say that the Seth’s penchant for folk melody was lacking, as exampled with “Innocent Child” and “Anna Lee”.
Amidst a set of vulnerability, beauty and positive artistic departures, the core principles of Seth’s live set never abated. As always, his accompanying guitarist, bassist and percussionist really heightened the evening, breaking into extended instrumental hoe-downs on tracks such as “Last Rider”, which even managed to form a small cohort of dancers in front of the seated masses. Cormack Byrne is an incredible percussionist, moving from folk-rock backbeats to the Irish bodhran before combining all of his talents for explosive songs such as “High Street Rose”. Seth was still able to meet these instrumental heights on his own with “Lady of the Sea”, his furious fiddle playing managing to layer melody and harmony whilst risking the breaking of his bow.
Wildwood Kin joined Seth for one final song, before the houselights suddenly lit up the space. Was the evening over? Not a chance! It was the audience’s turn to get involved, despite the seated set-up, and to their credit they did not hold back during live favourites “Blood Upon the Copper” and “Race To Be King”, Seth’s magnum opus. What started out as a refined, seated affair befitting an act who has been around for over a decade ended as if we were back in 2008, watching an incredible session that involved drinking, dancing and singing. Seth’s performances are still the pinnacle of his artistic pursuits, and it was great to see him pass on this same spirit to Wildwood Kin in front of Cambridge audience.
Words by James Proctor