Attached to the ULU’s auditorium is an air conditioned bar. Prior to Seth Lakeman’s set on this, the evening after one of the hottest days of London’s sweltering summer, a good portion of the audience are taking cool refuge in it. But when the Dartmoor former Mercury nominee takes to the stage with his backing band – acoustic guitar, double bass/banjo and percussion – thoughts of cooling down, for audience and performer, take a back seat.
Since signing to EMI scion Relentless, Lakeman has found his third, self-released album Freedom Fields being primed for re-release, complete with new single and video and a couple of extra tracks. Appropriately then the set opens with a taste of it. Take No Rogues is a mystical, folky number that showcases Lakeman’s dinky tenor guitar and high tenor vocals over a hypnotic rhythm.
After just a couple of songs the place began to resemble a sauna. Sweat dripped from the ceiling and from our headliner’s face, but the conditions were not to stop Lakeman’s trademark ramping up of tempo midway through songs and getting the whole place moving – none more so than on Blood Upon Copper. On double bass Ben Nicholls was a DIY smoke machine, puffing a ciggie while plucking and bowing as though his life depended on the outcome.
With Cormac Byrne giving his bass box what for on a raised dias behind him, Lakeman picked up his violin and went for Kitty Jay, title track of his Mercury-nominated second album. Played pacier than on the recording, Lakeman’s violin bow began to shed its fibres almost immediately as he all but set fire to his instrument while singing simultaneously. This version missed a bassline, but succeeded in focusing attention on Lakeman’s extraordinary accuracy as the bow flew across strings in a blur. By the end he received the most rapturous applause of the evening so far.
More from Kitty Jay was to come with The Storm, but there was also time for some slower numbers while the audience caught its collective breath. King and Country, a sweet romance number from Freedom Fields, and new single Lady Of The Sea both demonstrated Lakeman’s shining songwriting talent, though both could only be written by someone dwelling in the English countryside. Their concerns of mermaid-like waifs and long dead soldiers could have seemed incongruous in central London, but instead were exotic and very different to tha capital’s more usual indiginous music entertainment.
Ye Mariners All, from debut album The Punch Bowl, is still closing Lakeman’s set. Well it might – it remains an optimistic, beats-driven standard and lets Lakeman’s trademark warble have its head of steam. Tonight, as headliner, he was required to return for an encore. It consisted of just one song – Send Yourself Away, also from The Punch Bowl. I think he said it was being added to the Freedom Fields re-release. It was a low-key end that didn’t really satisfy the enraptured audience – the gig had lasted less than an hour and concerted whoops and howls failed to entice Lakeman back again. Perhaps he hadn’t expected such a positive reaction from the capital. Perhaps he’d melted somewhere stage left.
Whatever, into the warm night we went. Some punters debated whether Lakeman was a folk or indie artist as the sticky venue emptied. But whichever pigeonhole one cares to place him in is somewhat immaterial. Seth Lakeman is a damned fine live artist devoid of artifice who should be seen and savoured.