Review of Sam Lee / Iona Fyfe at Celtic Connections Wed 29th Jan by Bob Leslie
The pre-gig publicity for this gig – and, indeed, the odd comment from the stage, implied that the evening’s performances would be united by the thread of a shared admiration for the Robertson and Stewart traveller clans, with the word “traditional” plastered across Sam Lee’s picture in the festival brochure.
That admiration, however, turned out to be shared in deeply contrasting ways – as shall become evident.
But first, tonight’s support act, The Iona Fyfe Trio. I interviewed Iona in the studio about 18 months or so ago, and I remember her as a somewhat shy, but immensely knowledgeable young musician, who seemed a little taken aback by the (well-deserved) success she was having.
The Iona Fyfe who took the stage tonight (and took it by storm) was one who had honed her performance and presentational skills via a gruelling touring schedule taking in mainland Europe, the USA, and Canada, as well as the domestic UK circuit.
Her communication with her public was direct, warm, and displayed a lot of good humour. Add to that her always formidable vocal talents – plus the backing of two excellent musicians (Charlie Grey, fiddle/vocals, & Michael Wright, guitar/vocals) – and you have a guaranteed crowdpleaser.
Not that there was the slightest sense that she was bending to her audience. Iona pretty firmly nailed her colours to the mast with a beautifully melodic rendition of The Internationale and an impassioned Freedom Come Aa Ye that was prefaced with a telling comment on current affairs. Maybe my optimism’s been tempered by reading Twitter too much, but I was pleasantly surprised when both those songs were so warmly received – indeed the English couple next to me commented most favourably on what might be reckoned Hamish Henderson’s masterpiece.
But before and around those, she also delivered perfect renditions of some real folk classics, including, amongst others, the Aberdeenshire ballad of Andra Lammie (aka Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie), a cheeky coupling of The Banks of Inverurie with a spontaneous a cappella take on the Quine that Does the Strip in Inverurie (did I mention she was oozing confidence?), her new single Baltic Street, and, from the other side of the Big Water, Jean Ritchie’s Swing and Turn.
Her set was an undiluted pleasure to listen to, and I can’t help feeling she’ll be headlining a major future gig at this festival.
Now, on to the headliner at this gig: I hadn’t attended a Sam Lee concert before, and, as per his pre-gig publicity, was expecting a traditionally-based set (albeit pushing the door of originality), with, as mentioned above, a predominance of material learned via his traveller mentors.
Instead, what was presented was something that can only be described, in the traditional music context at least, as avant-garde. While, yes, there was a traveller-derived lyrical core to most of the material, really what was happening was the presentation of what might be termed “tone poems”, full of dissonances, unexpected shiftings between major and minor, and strangely dramatic instrumental and vocal arrangements.
“Dramatic” is probably the most apt term for the music heard – some of which would not have been out of place in a Brecht-Weill musical. Indeed, I shall be highly surprised if I don’t hear some of this material cropping up setting the scenes in a BBC drama or Hollywood movie.
To take but one outstanding example, Lee’s arrangement of the Copper Family’s Spenser the Rover turned this song, of a simple man who’s fallen through society’s net, into a major, and uncannily eerie drama stressing the healing powers of nature that direct and draw a lost soul on an Odyssey-like journey home to his family.
In fact, there was a strong ecological thread running through much of the material on display, e.g. Garden of England, Sow the Seeds of Love, and the traveller song reconstructed from Stanley Robertson’s half-remembered fragments The Moon Shines Bright which incorporated a snatch of Wild Mountain Thyme – but in a rather eldritch manner that did not invite the cheerful audience participation that song tends to garner. The bird kingdom too got a mention via similarly ambitious settings of the traditional The Blackbird and Turtle Dove.
Now, while the majority of the audience obviously loved all this, my appreciation was somewhat tempered by the fact that these great dramatic set-pieces didn’t, ultimately, seem to depend much on either the traditional melodies (which kept changing tonality in very unexpected ways) or, indeed, the traditional lyrics – which sometimes seemed at odds with their presentation, e.g. a “lullaby” that sounded more likely to scare the living daylights out of its intended recipients rather than soothe them to sleep.
But, that’s art for you. Not entirely my cup of tea, but it may well be yours. Sam Lee strikingly believes in what he’s doing, and the arrangements bespeak a considerable amount of thought and musicality. He’s also lucky enough to work with great players who facilitate his vision. And, the final, but indisputable telling point, he has his audience.
By Bob Leslie