Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman: On Tour – live review

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Life on the road for the majority of touring musicians is a world away from swanky hotels, plush tour buses and  a huge entourage to cater for your every whim.  Handling your own gear and flitting between scheduled stops which aren’t at opposite ends of the country while  trying to make sense of road maps and parking arrangements is probably de rigeur fo the likes of   folk duo (or should it be ‘folk  couple’ as they’re married…?)  Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. Up from Dartmoor on a comprehensive nationwide jaunt  theywere generous enough to let Mike Ainscoe stalk them round a short run of gigs. All in new venues around the North West it was a chance to catch up on their evolving live show, grab a copy of their ‘only available at gigs’ new CD and do some general stalking ahead of their Folk Awards appearance at the Albert Hall at the end of April.

Their profile has been high and their star in the ascendency since the release of 2012’s ‘Hidden People’ – maybe in hindsight a title which announced their return as a working duo to the folk scene. Kathryn having taken time out to returning to domesticity and  doing the family thing for a short while, with  Sean backing up ever popular brother Seth and embellishing his  reputation as a notable producer.  Their comeback was cemented as winners of Best Duo award at the 2013 BBC Folk Awards,  and not ones to let the grass grow under their feet continued an intense touring schedule, as well as recording 2015’s stunning ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’ album (LTW review here).


Doing what musicians do, the  touring continues apace, a short gap plugged by the chance to record a new EP – ‘Saved For A Rainy Day’ – a short set of collected works, originals and covers which have been in the live sets or just played for fun in their kitchen, committed to record and currently only available at live gigs. Reason enough to go out and catch the tour.

It’s an interesting collection and at eight tracks, might in the old days have constituted an album, four songs each side, but is a handy little stop gap which keeps the kettle boiling and allows a couple of real gems to get into the open. And  ‘Saved For A Rainy Day’ was quite apt having to dash in between early April hail showers in the North West.

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First of a little run of gigs in three venues was at Ramsbottom Civic Hall. The regular haunt,  Bury’s Met is currently undergoing an extensive and expensive   refurb so a host of local venues have been shoehorned into use,  the team from The Met shipping in and out the technical necessities and doing a fine job in the process. Legendary soundman Terry handling his desk to perfection in a new room.

After day of shopping round  for a new touring vehicle (together with “lunch in Bradford”) and  with the usual opening song ‘Child Owlet’ appearing later in the set, perhaps too gruesome a tale and murder ballad par excellence to start an evening, it was  an unexpected  swinging rhythm providing a breezy opening  to the current set.  ‘For My Next Trick’ could be classed as one of those songs you might never  have heard but first hearing  makes an instant impression. Even more so when you check out the original and find that it’s not a patch on the version you’ve just heard. One of the tracks from the new EP and a tribute/recollection  really to the days of travelling the US West coast with Zevon on the tape deck.

It was the first of several references  to their early days – the ‘Equation days’ when the combination with the likes of the other Lakeman brothers, Sam and Seth and Cara Dillon saw the young pretenders to the folk crown cutting their teeth – plus it was something which gave the gigs a bit of a  comprehensive flavour and a chance to show off their full repertoire and dip into their heritage and influences.

The EP opens with the duo setting  music to a Les Barker poem about a steam train, ‘Evening Star’; in concert featuring  a regular intro from Kathryn reminiscing over  early family  encounters with Les involving a revealing memory of  herself  as a young child sitting on the potty with her pants on her head.  Moving swiftly on, and while on the subject of  husband and wife duos, the EP also includes a terrific  song learned from The Kennedy’s, one of the US’s best husband and wife troubadour duos in ‘Down, Down, Down’. A quivering  but subtle slide guitar accompanying  the ethereal vocal, one of those which showcases  Kathryn’s voice and a long time staple in the live set – but not today – now committed to record.

‘Darling Isabella’ is another heavily featured live song and now recorded as a scratchy old time number complete with crackly vinyl effect. A quirky one indeed and something which has its roots in Mrs Beeton’s famous household management manual and its exploration of the narcotic values of certain variety of potato and all. In fact the sort of book that the Ladybird series have recently parodied to great effect.

Back to the live set, amongst the structured pieces, there seems to be a flexibility in the current touring set – even to the extent of taking requests;  ‘Rosie Anderson’ – a multi versed   “Scottish love song gone wrong” – appearing tonight and although often used as a soundcheck number , elevated into the main set in as whole a form as Kathryn could recall. Nice surprise though and treat for the Rammy regulars. As was ‘Georgia Lee’ played at Sean’s request – perhaps as he gets the chance to indulge briefly in a rare bit  of  acoustic guitar soloing. Tom Wait’s tragic story of the death of a child and a perfect example of how the set shifts between  steam trains and light hearted struggles with instruments and stage clothing (“she’s got her flute stuck in her fishing net”) to the frankly smutty in which they delight and revel and on to the heartrending and   poignant – the emotion-o-meter dial swinging rapidly from one end of the scale to another.

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As on ‘Saved For A Rainy Day’, they have a go at doing Springsteen – not an easy task. To appropriate the ‘No-one does Dylan like Dylan’ tag line, no-one does Bruce like Bruce although without wanting to offend anyone, Kathryn certainly articulates the lyric particularly clearly rather than the Springsteen drawl while  Sean plays the guitar part in a way that Bruce doesn’t or possibly couldn’t. The choice of song is though is spot on: ‘Matamoros Banks’, the subject of immigration, Mr Trump’s ‘wall’ comments and the pair’s observations from the refuge of their tour manager’s place by the border back in US touring days all add up to a suitably reverential moment.

The spine of the set lies in the staples of ‘The Red Barn’, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Child Owlet’ while ‘The Lusty Smith’ and ‘The Banishing Book’ add to the sauce count yet on the other hand they offer up moments of relaxation and calm  with ’52 Hertz’ and  an encore of ‘The Wisdom Of Standing Still’ – “time is for sharing with friends” and talk of the weekly highlight  of checking out Crime Corner in the excitement of the delivery of the Tavistock Times – such is the pace of Devon life.


Meanwhile, with border crossings highly topical, the tour made its way  from Lancs to Yorks across the Pennines to  Halifax Square Chapel with the added attraction of a pint of specially brewed Square ChapAle (oh how we chuckled at the droll Yorkshire wit).

Passport control safely negotiated, there was a chance to once again catch Kitty Macfarlane who’s been the main support on the tout is opening again. Despite being far from home, there’s an association with the area –  Kitty’s granny is from Holmfirth, so a west country/Yorkshire cross pollination offers some connection with the locals. Second time round, there’s an opportunity to properly take in and appreciate  her opening set. She’s from the west country , her songs influenced by the area and it’s stories but with Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett’s ‘Song To The Siren’ it’s a good choice of a  familiar enough song  with which to introduce herself.  Kitty seems to cut from the same cloth as fellow bright young folky for whom great things are predicted, Kelly Oliver. A crystal clear ringing voice and finely picked guitar providing the  Macfarlane hallmark.

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‘Wrecking Days’ (wrecking being an extreme version of beachcombing) – the last song in the set but EP opener, is proving to be a highlight while in ‘Lamb’ she’s reworked a Blake poem while  the title track from her ‘Tide & Time’ EP ebbs and flows gently like its subject. A young star whose fire is smouldering gently, not long surely off catching and taking hold. And well worth seeking out the recorded version for the accompaniment of Jamie Francis’ banjo and Sam Kelly’s cittern.

For the style conscious, tonight’s show sees Sean in smart waistcoat again and accompanying Kathryn in her glittery open net shawl  is not what Sean suggests is a fashionable hand tattoo, but a note. A reminder or little aide memoire. “Both boobs” she reads, but elaborates that it  should actually read  “both knobs” – a reference to how the dressing room door works apparently and possibly the lesser of the two evils. No matter, it’s just an example of the little unplanned asides that someone like Peter Kay would be agonising over for weeks. Just like when Sean mentions he’s struggling to get a grip on some tuning; the problems with new strings on an old guitar – “like new knickers for an old lady” – and another one stashed away for the most opportune moment.

Don McGalshan’s ‘Jackie’s Song’ and Kathryn’s  ‘The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs’ are the wild cards in tonight’s set. Once again, the chance to revisit and dip into their catalogue maintain their own sharpness as well as rewarding anyone catching up for  more than a single show.  Halifax’s Square Chapel, all high vaulted ceilings and wooden beams soon to give way to something a little more personal and low key.

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And finally, not just across borders but to another country. The Blue Sky Café in Bangor is probably by their own admittance as far across into Wales as they’ve been. The former second world war dance hall – up an alley next to the butchers on the High Street – proved to be a much more casual and intimate stop off.

Adding to the relaxed nature of the gigs, Bangor turned out to be even more intimate – onstage in the corner in their day togs, Kathryn’s glittery net shawl staying in the suitcase with a red cardi being much more de rigeur, was back to basics. Simple lighting and mingling with the audience – Kathryn even leaning on the bar and humming along during  Sera Owen’s support  in a different take on a vocal warm up. There were even the Roberts/Lakeman twins , probably wondering what all the fuss is about, secreted on a low sofa at the front of the café, taking a break from their starring role  on ‘Smile & Shine’ on the EP as their three year old selves – they remain constantly  one of their parents inspirations,  suitably cute and in ‘Smile & Shine’ possibly  another set of potential lyrics to be transformed  onto  a greetings card  ;-)

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Talking of which,  ‘A Song To Live By’ from the ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’,  has evolved from a gentle lullaby into a highlight of the album and even a greeting card such is the popularity of the sentiment it carries – plus an audience who all have someone for whom that sentiment will benefit.  On the tour it’s been taken at a slower pace, admittedly allowing Kathryn to not simply play and sing  the song but has evolved into a piece which now has more  of a considered delivery.

Changes in the set continued aplenty – “I think I might do ‘Andy Jacobs’ tonight,”  before obviously a change of  mind saw the first appearance for a few days of  ‘Huldra’. A quick stab on the reverb button usually reserved for the similar cautionary tale ‘Rusalka’ giving an echo and tone to the unaccompanied vocal you wouldn’t associate in a little café bar. Both songs made appearances in the set at the Blue Sky, adding a little musical mystique and   European folklore to the little town in the valley on the coast.

Not surprising that once again, they find themselves with a Folk Awards nomination and even been invited to perform at the awards at the Albert Hall later this month. There’s apparently been a  request to do ‘Child Owlet’ or something to liven up proceedings – the musical fayre on offer from    Joan Armatrading, The Unthanks and Sam Lee must need  –  so a murder ballad packed with incest, mutilation and a generous helping of  bloodshed and general carnage should do the trick!

Meanwhile, the tour  continues well into May before festival season kicks in and offers up plenty chance to catch an act which is right at the top of not only its game but at the highest branches of the folk tree .


You can find the Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman website at : http://www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/

They are  also on Facebook  and tweets  as @kathryn_sean


Words and live photography by Mike Ainscoe. You can find more of Mike’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive and his website is www.michaelainscoephotography.co.uk

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