Pairing Mercury-nominated indie-folkie Seth Lakeman with masters of the genre Levellers was inspired. Who better to warm up the packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire than Lakeman, a man described as “the Jamie Cullum of folk-roots,” whose rhythmic reels and intricate all-acoustic instrumentation made a worthwhile case for audience attendance all on its own?
Lakeman, always the outsider in the 2005 Mercury nominations, was on the same stage graced by eventual winner Antony and the Johnsons earlier this month. And while he made it his own, he wasn’t quite on his own. To his left was a rhythm section of double bass, played by the band’s most senior member, and percussion, by its most junior. The percussionist, surely somebody’s kid brother aged 13 if a day, alternated between bodhrain and bass box (think a hi-fi speaker with no wires). To Seth’s right strummed a smooth-cut and correspondingly efficient guitarist.
Seth himself managed that rare feat of singing while playing his fiddle, before swapping to what looked curiously like a home made miniature guitar. Reeling through songs from the nomination-festooned second album Kitty Jay and its predecessor The Punchbowl, the rapt audience gave him their full attention throughout, and the quartet left to cheers and whoops. Lakeman plays London again this month, supporting The Pogues.
In 2005, the year of the internet band, where number ones can be decided by fans rather than major label marketing campaigns, it seems curious that Levellers, a band close to their fans throughout their 17-years (and counting) career and whose use of the web has helped sustain them, have been overlooked in cultural treatises on the music industry’s woes. Here is a band neither on a major label nor needing adverts, whose shows always sell out and whose fans remain amongst the most loyal of any act.
In a live setting it’s easy to see why. With a back catalogue that includes 14 top 40 singles and some bona fide ’90s anthems amongst their set, Levellers’ music speaks for itself. But as the original line-up takes to the stage to the sound of a George Bush soundalike soundtrack, it becomes clear that listening to their rootsy music on CD simply isn’t preparation enough for the incredible sight that is bassist Jeremy Cunningham’s hair. The man’s epic red dreds are surely deserving of some award all of their own – and anyone playing near him is well advised to cede space for fear of being lashed to tatters. One nod of his head and the whole cascade goes flying. It’s extraordinary.
Scarcely less so is fiddler Jon Sevink, who leaps to within an inch of the audience and swaps between standard and electric violin, and vocalist (MC?) Simon Friend, still dressed in black with his cowboy hat, like some English folk version of Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger from Westworld – albeit with more hair. As a front man for this lot, Mark Chadwick looks something like ordinary, but he seems to be the rock around which all else turns.
In a balanced set that took in old and new material, the Levellers showed they weren’t yet prepared to be a tribute act to themselves. Tracks such as 15 Years, one of the highlights from Levelling the Land, and Julie, weren’t given outings, but plenty else aged and loved was. The Boatman, sans trippy didge ending, provoked an audience singalong to its uplifting lyrics – at least from those grizzled veterans present who could remember the words. They kept going for the joy of Carry Me and The Ballad of Robbie Jones. Later hit What A Beautiful Day – another number shot through with optimism – had a similar reception from the younger contingent.
The band’s 2005 album Truth & Lies, with political themes as ever to the forefront – in a year whose events proved the need for the Levellers’ message of peace and harmony to reach out to the world – was given a solid workout. Second single Last Man Alive will grow with the years and is already a powerful, rocky gale of energy, but some of the album’s other songs teetered towards soft rock. Who’s The Daddy – which starts out being the title track and then sounds like it was joined on to another song – started edgy and attention-grabbing before turning less interestingly rosy. Make You Happy also needed more urgency and seemed, relatively, a little staid. For Us All though, played late in the set, sounded like a call for reassurance to fans: “We all need you / and we hope you need us too.” Of course we do.
Then, in an encore of psychedelic style, on came a figure dressed in a while cape and mask augmented by day-glo trimmings, sporting a didge to rival Jeremy’s dreds in spectacularity. With Seth Lakeman backing them up with his fiddle, something like a tribal gathering ensued as the set climaxed, almost inevitably, with the student anthem One Way, Mark being helped to its conclusion by some 1,500 backing vocalists.
Whatever mood people were in when they left work, hassled about with public transport, road works or the other life-sapping mundane flummery, they left the Shepherd’s Bush Empire grinning from ear to ear, one or two even shedding a tear, and feeling better. Levellers have that effect.