Admittedly, after the softer and more laid back sound of Seth Lakeman’s latest album, Ballads of the Broken Few, I was a little unsure what to expect from his new live show. This was to be the fourth time I had seen Lakeman live since the release of Word of Mouth (2014), and each time previously had been a high-energy performance with an exciting wall of good folky sounds emanating from the stage; I was curious to see how the new songs would compare live, and whether Lakeman and his band would still be playing many of my old loud favourites. I need not have worried; the show was spectacular in a way that only Seth Lakeman and his all-star band (Jack Rutter, Ben Nicholls, and Cormac Byrne) can deliver.
That is not to say that there were no teething problems at all with the show; the first night of any tour is always going to be the slightly difficult one. When the band took to the stage, the first few beats of The Courier were slightly underwhelming, but as soon as the song burst into life with Lakeman’s unique brand of violin playing it was as if nothing had changed from previous performances. From the middle of the crowd, Ben Nicholls’ backing vocals seemed slightly high in the mix, and in the choruses they seemed to drown out the lead line, but, as previously mentioned, minor teething problems. It did strike me for the first half of the set that Lakeman himself did not seem as energetic as usual; in Take No Rogues Jack Rutter seemed to steal the show from the frontman with his frenzied jumping around the stage, but a slowed down version of Stand By Your Guns seemed to get the band tighter with each other’s performances.
There was a good amount of crowd interaction and some history behind the music, explained well by Lakeman in between songs before he then welcomed Wildwood Kin back onto the stage for some renditions of the new material. Before this album I had not heard of the all-female trio, but their performance in the support slot earlier had blown me away and I was listening intently to see what else they could do; they are definitely a band to keep an eye out for in the future. Anna Lee was not one of my favourites from the new album, but it was a lot more interesting to hear live, as was the foot-stomping anthemic title track, Ballads of the Broken Few. Bringing Nicholls back onto the stage for Innocent Child gave my favourite song from the new album a nifty bass line that it really needed, and the harmonies of Wildwood Kin were all the more resonating because of that. It was also nice to see a new instrument come out that I had not seen Lakeman play live before; from the middle of the stalls it seemed to be an electric tenor guitar, but I could be mistaken.
It may have just been me, but something felt slightly out of tune in The Bold Knight, again, this could have merely been a few teething problems for the first night of the tour, however. Jack Rutter playing the concertina was an interesting change – historically the squeezebox lines have been played by Ben Nicholls in the past, but the song needs its bass line heard alongside Lakeman’s violin playing. Crowd interaction came to the forefront again as Lakeman asked any dancers in the audience to come forward for Riflemen of War, but it was a shame that at this point only two obliged. The harmonica was very loud and shrill in the mix for The Colliers, but the song remains such a crowd favourite that I am not sure much of the audience noticed; it was also nice to hear Last Rider reintroduced to the live set, after its absence the last couple of shows I had attended.
Like Stand By Your Guns earlier, Lady of the Sea sounded slightly different as the band played it live, but the new version worked. It was at this point that members of the audience finally jumped out of their seats and formed a crowd down in front of the stage; as Lakeman effortlessly medlied the song into High Street Rose, the sole survivor from his debut album to be performed live, I reflected again on the venue choice. Sure, RNCM is big enough and has a nice acoustic to it – but songs like High Street Rose simply do not work in a seated venue. They are fun songs, with the short sharp bursts of noise that made Lakeman so successful in the first place; it would be a lot more fun from my perspective to see Lakeman booked into more standing venues; as much as I dislike the venue itself, his show last year at Sub89 in Reading was the most energetic one I have seen him deliver because of the intimacy that only a standing venue/club can provide. Nevertheless, the song went down well here in Manchester, and I was grateful that it seemed Cormac Byrne finally had an opportunity to show off just why he is one of the best drummers in folk music.
It is magnificent how Seth Lakeman always manages to finish a high-energy song like High Street Rose, thrashing loudly on every instrument available on the stage, and then delve into near silence to turn off the PA and sing Portrait of My Wife on the edge of the stage without losing the attention of anyone in the audience, but he manages it every time. Not only that, but the entire audience singing along to the slow ballad was beautiful as always; before the PA flickered back into life for Lakeman to begin Kitty Jay. The last few times I have seen him live, Seth Lakeman has seemed to be strapped for time by the end of the set, performing a shortened version of his most famous hit. Not this time though, and it was good to hear not only the full version of the song – but an extended outro with Byrne taking the stage again to join in on the percussion towards the end.
The encore was slightly bizarre though. Whilst I was waiting for Blood Upon the Copper, Lakeman returned to the stage alone with Wildwood Kin behind, and they gathered around the microphone to sing acapella. Not only was it a new song, but it was apparently so new that it was not on the last album; after playing only three songs from the new album, it seems a bit strange to sing a new one that was not even on that album for the encore, especially when the audience is expecting something more lively by that point. Don’t get me wrong, it was certainly a beautiful piece, but it felt slightly misplaced in the show. It was a relief when Blood Upon the Copper began, purely for me personally as it is my favourite Lakeman song and I was anxious that they were not going to play it! The extended outro was appreciated by the audience in barn-dance fashion, before a climatic performance of Race to Be King finished off the first night of the tour in style. Seth Lakeman and his band are back, and despite a stylistic change on their last album musically, and despite a few things sounding like they needed airing out a bit, their live shows are just as good as ever.