Review: Sam Lee evokes loss and beauty at Lantern Hall

Sam Lee is part of a growing movement of British and Irish folk musicians who eschew the incorrect assumption that folk music is about an aesthetic. Unlike other genres, folk music is not about a particular sound or look. Plaintive singing, the use of acoustic instruments, feathers in caps and rural idylls – this is where the likes of Mumford & Sons go so wrong. Instead, folk music is about the passing on of stories, stories that reflect our world. ‘Streets of Derry’ is as legitimate accompanied by drone, as sung by Marlais, as it is accompanied by solo piano in Cara Dillon’s version.

Lee recognises this, and has become one of the world’s great collectors of folk songs using the oral tradition. In particular, Scottish balladeer and storyteller Stanley Robertson took him under his wing and taught him many songs, and Lee has collected more since Robertson’s death, particularly from the travelling community.

With his latest album songdreaming, Lee has leaned into his own songwriting, expanding on existing songs that reflect the turbulent times that we are in. A natural countryman, he spent time as a student of Ray Mears and is famous for performing alongside nightingales in nocturnal Sussex. He is aware of just how deep the shit we are in is with regards to ecological collapse, access to nature and habitat destruction, and this makes a fitting theme for new takes on traditional songs.

Onstage at Bristol Beacon’s Lantern Hall, Lee introduces not a gig but a “journey into songs connected to the land,” a “celebration” of what we have around us but also a lament for what we have lost and are continuing to lose. The nightingales he so loves are consigned to extinction on these shores within 30 years, and he is clearly emotional about both the beauty of their song and their imminent demise. He duets with a recording of a nightingale in the old Suffolk song The Tanyard Side, evokes his nocturnal search for the bird in the thumping Essex song Bushes and Briars, and announces the curlew as the band’s current mascot with the Robertson-learned McCrimmon. He admits blushingly that the show is somewhat bird themed.

There are lovely lines, such as “be soft as green moss and be free” in Green Mossy Banks, or “may the sun warm gently on your face, the wind blow from behind, the ground be soft in her embrace, and all you meet be kind” in Meeting is a Pleasant Place. Such romantic evocations only work, however, in combination with a potent musical force, as Lee and his band demonstrate. His voice is clear and full of emotion, and the band behind him progress many of the songs from contemplative ambience to pounding cacophony. Best of all is the inclusion of Bristol’s Murmuration Choir, whose backing on songs such as the funeral chant Lay This Body Down – a rousing anthem to the dead that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Waits record – are the highlight of the night.