Sam Lee’s Singing With Nightingales review – sweet night music

A dark, dark wood and a shy songbird make a magical setting for traditional folk ballads

It is 7.30pm and just starting to get dark in woodland not far from Lewes in Sussex. It’s raining steadily. A circle of people, booted, hatted and with umbrellas, sit on log benches around a defiant fire and ignore the weather. The small talk is of nightingales – one of our reasons for being here. And now, through the trees, like the Pied Piper he is (it is the marvel of his voice, as much as anything, that has led us to this place) comes Sam Lee, folk singer extraordinaire. Tonight, and for several nights, he is mounting a magical, spontaneous, uncertain event that depends upon the cooperation of nightingales. The word from the farmer who owns the land is good: two nightingales – said to have set off from Senegal in February – were heard on Tuesday. Exhausted, lighter than when they left and in fine voice.

It seems right that we should listen to Sam in this makeshift camp. He has made it his life’s work to adapt songs learned directly from Romany and Scottish and Irish travellers. He is a one-off and, once heard, impossible not to celebrate – his album Ground of Its Own was shortlisted for a Mercury award. Everything about Sam is first-hand; his other teacher, nature herself. Tonight his band has been rained off and, as we eat our Moroccan tagine, he sings accompanied only by the patter of rain and flicker of fire. His voice – high and supple and charged with melancholy – rises above everything. He sings piercingly beautiful ballads of Robin Hood, a girl named Lemony, Jonny o’ the Brine. He teaches us a French nightingale lullaby, Le Rossignol.

Sam Lee, second from right, and audience last week.
Sam Lee, second from right, and audience last week. Photograph: Claire Shovelton

The evening’s second act involves a silent half-hour walk. I can make out white hawthorn, spectral in the dark. But this part of the evening seems as precariously balanced as we are (the mud slippery). What if the nightingales don’t sing? We stop in a field – the farmer and Sam expectant. We wait. No nightingales. We sing our French lullaby. No reply. I fancy that, as at the Royal Opera House, a manager is about to appear, apologising for the nightingale’s indisposition. A tawny owl hoots in the damp auditorium, an obliging understudy.

Lee does not give up. We press on alongside a railway track flanked by blackthorn thicket and are greeted by a chorus of marsh frogs – and suddenly it begins: the strangest and most wonderful concert, frogs and nightingales together. Extraordinary how one bird sounds like a crowd – cheerful and then stricken. Sometimes it is possible to join in. But tonight’s bird is a “sensitive” young nightingale and Sam Lee does not upstage him.

Sam Lee’s Singing With Nightingales, with special guests, is at a secret location near Lewes, East Sussex until 21 May


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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