It’s 11 years since Seth Lakeman was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize, triggering countless “poster boy of folk” features, a major label deal, and the sort of intense marketing and promotion usually associated with Planet Cowell. In addition there were rock festivals a-go-go, and an invitation to meet Colonel Gaddafi. Folk music didn’t know what had hit it. And – drenched in pulsating rhythms, larynx-busting vocals and gallons of sweat – you imagine Lakeman didn’t, either.
Now a married father of three, the genial Lakeman’s approach is rather more measured and sedate. He still performs many old favourites – the Dartmoor legend of Kitty Jay persists as a violin tour de force; the Penlee lifeboat disaster song, Solomon Browne, is as urgently tragic as ever; The Colliers depicts the Gresford mining disaster with dramatic intensity; and the ferocious closing song Race to Be King gets the full house at the old church up on its feet.
But now Lakeman’s horizons come in contrasting shades and they are mostly better for it. With him are a compact but assured band featuring Jack Rutter (guitar), Ben Nicholls (double bass) and Cormac Byrne (percussion), keeping the energy levels high; but it’s the harmony vocals of female trio Wildwood Kin that have the most profound impact. An influential presence on his new album, they bring welcome freshness to his stage act.
His new material relies less on cliches about watery graves, angry seas and West Country legends, and tackles more personalised matters of the heart with appropriate tenderness. What you lose in adrenalin rush, you gain in deeper sensibility.
The band departs at one point, leaving Seth and Wildwood Kin grouped around a single mic like old-time country musicians, adding charm and whimsical Americana to the Boys’ Own adventure stories and relentless musicality. The best moment of all comes when, left alone on stage, Lakeman abandons the mic, steps out front and sings a sentimental, unaccompanied singalong Portrait of My Wife. It’s an old trick, but it rarely fails.
In truth, he’s not the greatest songwriter, the best singer or the most charismatic showman, but there’s something intrinsically likable about him and the gutsy honesty of his performance plays well alongside his virtuosity on a variety of instruments.
His trademark string-snapping fiddle extravaganzas are sparingly used – and in many ways are missed – but, liberated from the pressures of the major-label demand for hits, he is reinventing himself in such a human way, the about-turn of an entirely solo tour might offer sufficient perspective to re-engage those alienated by the rock star years. The new album’s gospel-tinged title track Ballad of the Broken Few is certainly a persuasive indicator of a more fulsome and enduring potential to prove there is life after populist frenzy.
He is, at heart, a fiddle-playing singer-songwriter shaped by folk music and West Country history, and now that he’s calmed down a bit and eased up on the grandstanding set pieces, the real Lakeman emerges from the haze with an almost apologetic grin that is hard to resist.