Since winning the Horizon Award at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Sam has been a busy man, whether with The Changing Room, various duos and trios or The Lost Boys. With the Summer Festival season almost complete and a full autumn/winter schedule lined up, it was originally the Trio format booked to perform. However, with Toby Shaer apparently locked out of his home, it was the Quartet line-up gracing the stage tonight at the St. Edith Hall.
An eclectic mix of song styles drawn in almost equal measure from the debut full-length The Lost Boys and the soon to be released, (6th October, 2017), Pretty Peggy CDs, together with three tracks from the Spokes EP and two from The Changing Room releases, plus two others, (although nothing from the Your Way Home EP), gave a good representation of Sam's recorded output to date.
A stomping version of Leadbelly's Gallows Pole brought the venue alive from the first note, before four songs from The Lost Boys CD showed how adept these musicians are at putting their own distinctive mark on traditional tunes and songs. The foot-tapping riff underpinning their interpretation of the traditional Scottish song The King's Shilling continued the high-energy atmosphere. There was to be no let-up, with Sam's reworking of The Golden Vanity, a shanty of betrayal and death recorded by many others, including Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span and Martin Simpson, albeit under various titles. His explanation of trying, at the recent Tonder Festival, to teach the Danes rowing actions to accompany the song and the mosh-pit scenario which ensued, resulting in what was described as Danish pilates, set the song up well and encouraged lusty chorus singing from the audience. Continuing the dark theme, the American murder ballad Little Sadie followed, before the audience were once again singing along, this time to Jolly Waggoners, a song first collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the opening track on their first CD.
An endearing feature of Sam's live performances, indeed of the group as a whole, is humour; more often than not self-deprecating, and tonight was no exception. Explaining the dawning realisation that choosing Looe, Cornwall as a home-base for himself and Jamie as touring musicians might not have been the wisest career choice, together with an over-indulgence in the healthy food option known as 'the pasty', "My guitar is getting further away from my stomach", we learnt that they are shortly to relocate to Bristol.
A complete change of tempo next as If I Were A Blackbird was given an airing. The first song of the evening from the new Pretty Peggy CD mentioned above, gave full opportunity for the clarity of Sam's voice to shine through, as his version of this traditional song built up from solo voice and guitar, with first banjo and then flute being added before Evan Carson's bodhran joined for the last one minute twenty of the song. Introducing the next number as "a traditional song from the north-east of England, collected in the 1970's by Mark Knopfler, from his own brain", Sultans of Swing gave the group full licence to rock out, which they duly did; Jamie Francis trading blistering banjo licks with Toby Shaer's fiddle, behind a driving beat, firstly on bodhran and then drum kit, from Evan. Eat your heart out Hayseed Dixie.
The Shining Ship, another new track, recently featured in a live session on Mark Radcliffe's BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, (albeit with a different line-up to tonight), was another menacing, dark tale, based upon the 17th Century Scottish Ballad, Demon Lover, which built broodily and featured a violin figure that reminded me very much of Within You Without You by The Beatles. Finally, a version of Skip James's Cypress Grove, from the Spokes EP, closed what had been an exhilarating and entertaining, first set.
The second set commenced with Bonny Lass of Fyvie, the Scottish ballad of a thwarted romance between a soldier and "Pretty Peggy" which gives the new album its title. Tonight's rendition was well-crafted and extremely well-received, and one can only wait with baited breath as the CD version will also feature Cara Dillon on vocals and the pipe-playing of Mike McGoldrick. This was followed by the second song of the evening from the 2015 Spokes EP, Hickathrift, based upon an East Anglian legend about Tom Hickathrift, a giant-slayer.
Next, Sam revealed that prior to the release of the group's first full-length CD, their plan was that there was no plan - this, he explained, was evident in the fact that the Spokes EP did not in fact contain the Spokes track, and that it was to be found instead on The Lost Boys CD. Introductions don't come much better, and the song itself, the first self-penned one of the evening, gave further evidence as to why Sam is such a sought-after name in the Folk World.
Next there followed a first for this Folk Club, a song sung in Cornish, Gwrello Glaw, (Let It Rain), from The Changing Room's Picking Up The Pieces CD. Once again Sam's tremendous voice was to the fore and his delivery of the first ever Cornish language song to be played on national radio was beguiling.
Two more tracks from the new album, the first and eleventh of twelve, followed. A rousing version of the whaling shanty Greenland Whale was followed by a driving, and equally stirring, take on The Keeper; both songs exemplifying a group not afraid to adapt to differing styles and refusing to stick slavishly to accepted versions of traditional arrangements.
A brief break from the SK4 ensued as Sam was joined on stage, for one song, by Minnie Birch, (who had earlier opened the evening ), and Jess Distill, (of Said the Maiden), all members of The Company of Players, a contemporary folk collective set up to write, record and perform songs inspired by William Shakespeare.
The final song of the set saw Sam reunited with his band for Healing Hands, a third track from the Spokes EP , the second song of the evening written by Sam, and a further opportunity for the virtuosity of each member of the band to be displayed.
The full-house audience were not to be denied an encore, and they were suitably rewarded, perhaps because, as Toby said on their return to the stage, "The backstage door was locked". I'll Give You My Voice, a song for Sam's grandfather Tony Kelly, from The Changing Room Behind The Lace CD closed the show.
A show in which a talented group of young musicians displayed an intoxicating blend of traditional folk, often gentle with at times a slightly raucous edge - and all with smiles on their faces. They may have recently played large festivals but in a recent Shire Folk interview Sam stated "but sometimes the really small, intimate gigs can be the most fun. "Let's hope that he felt tonight's performance was one such, the audience certainly did. Catch them on tour this autumn, you won't be disappointed
Sam Kelly - vocals, guitar
Jamie Francis - banjo, vocals
Evan Carson - percussion, bodhran, vocals
Toby Shaer - fiddle, flute
Sometime in the near future videos from tonight's gigg will appear on the St. Edith Folk YouTube Channel
Words & Picture David Pratt
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