There are many songs out there that are older than I am, songs older than my house, older even than the village in which I live. Some of the oldest songs are lost, gone forever with the loss of those who last sang them, and some are still sung, having reached some form of critical mass, and will last for years to come, and finally there are some that fall between these two extremes.
These songs that still hang on by their refrains, resisting the silence, are perhaps known and sung by only a very few people or are maybe even partially lost with only a few verses still known, and these songs are a rich seam that repays investigation, reveals much of interest, plumbs deep emotions and gritty historical experience, provides reflections upon our modern world that often reveal profound takes on humanity that we’d easily have missed without the added perspective of history. They deserve to be preserved, these songs that crystallise the wisdom of elders as sung art. Excitingly, it is often these diminished, shattered and incomplete works that can be manoeuvred or cajoled into revealing things their authors and countless previous singers had never imagined.
There is a rather small coterie of artists out there who know well of these things, and who collect these jewels and sing them again. Some try to recreate them as they once were, with greater or lesser degrees of success. More interestingly perhaps, some artists dare to enhance them with new arrangements, new instrumentation that would never previously have graced their stanzas, and even daringly combine fragments from more than one song to create a sung chimera, a folk song built from folk songs, an entirely new beast that thrums with the meaning of more than one origin, its DNA a melange that may span centuries, continents and civilisations.
Such an artist is Sam Lee. At St. Georges in Bristol last night we had the privilege to experience him and his band in the perfect venue for such adventuring, such blasphemy even. They delivered to us most of – possibly all of – the new album “Old Wow”, which I heartily recommend to you for your listening pleasure, and scattered some older numbers across the set; I was particularly pleased to hear “Phoenix Island” from the “Fade In Time” album at one point, and we got an exquisite rendition of “Lovely Molly”. The audience likely contained most of Bristol’s folk cognoscenti, and the place was packed. For the entire duration of the performance I heard not a single muttering, no-one’s phone sounded, no one waved a phone overhead in front of us, no-one coughed and no one skuttered in late causing a fuss; you could hear the proverbial pin fall throughout. A wonderful delight shared in peaceful and respectful appreciation.
If you have yet to hear Sam’s voice, you need to set aside a little time to hear him and to let his quirky genius work its magic upon you. He has a deep, clear and idiosyncratic voice, and best of all is not afraid to use this wonderful instrument to do that manoeuvring and cajoling of lyric and meaning as he wrests new melodies from the ether for old, old, songs and parts of songs and makes them shine again. The songs, as found or expanded, merged with others or alone, may often be dressed in unfamiliar clothes, but are always boldly delivered and profoundly felt. Best of all, his band is extravagantly talented and completely engaged in the same artistic mission; to deliver these new imaginings in the guise of what I might call jazz folk of the highest order. Piano, violin, double bass and drums dance lightly or drive forcefully as required while Sam delivers the vocal in his inimitable style and dances a few Gypsy moves between verses. Two 45 minute sets flashed past in a blink.
We left on a high, entranced and delighted – the place gave them a standing ovation at the close – with a deep appreciation for the work we’d just heard; perhaps a millennium of endeavour and oral history condensed into an hour and a half of unhurried, joyful and thoughtful experience sympathetically delivered by troubadours of the eternal simplicity of song.
Catch them if you can, you’ll glow afterwards. If you can’t catch them live, at least buy the albums. Your stereo will thank you, if it has any soul.
Here’s 40 minutes of Sam and friends doing what they do best: