Sam Lee and Friends: Gypsy Traveller Roots review – traditionally original

Tron theatre, Glasgow
The English folk singer entertained a partisan Celtic Connections crowd with a clutch of songs from around the British Isles, delivered with conviction

“I am what you might call ‘surrounded’ just now. I had better get this right.” Sam Lee is one of English folk’s most resolute and colourful champions but he gave a nervous laugh as he opened his Celtic Connections show. By “this” he meant a set-list of Traveller songs, material he has spent years gathering from communities around the British Isles and which features on his striking second album The Fade in Time. On stage with him in Glasgow was Jess Smith, luminary of Scottish Traveller singing and storytelling, and in the audience was a fairly vocal contingent of Travellers from across the UK. “Surrounded” was accurate, musically and physically.

But what did he mean by “right”? Lee has plenty of reason to be reverent about the heritage he’s tapping into here: ballads telling centuries-old lore of marginalisation and migration, multiple verses passed down within families and Traveller sites. He spent four years studying with the Aberdeenshire bard Stanley Robertson and was evidently welcomed into the fold for giving voice to music that needs new tradition-bearers.

And besides, it’s a beautiful voice: a rich, sweet, rousing baritone with a soft grain and a tough edge that does justice to the sorrow and graft in these ballads. Crucially he makes the songs his own, delivering Scots, Welsh and Irish lyrics with straight-up English diction and subtly original inflections. His band arrangements didn’t always work so well – placid dulcimer, strident fiddle – and the group’s best moment was their a cappella version of Lovely Molly. Meanwhile Jess Smith sang alone, voice swamped in reverb but still raw and real. Lee let out a sigh after she sang a soulful, unsentimental, gritty account of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow: “You can get the best musicians around you, but the old ways are always the best.”


Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Songs of Separation review – joyous and stirring
Ten of folk’s finest female performers sing songs ‘not really about separation, but about connection’ in a thought-provoking Celtic Connections show with genuine empathetic chemistry

Colin Irwin

25, Jan, 2016 @1:16 PM

Article image
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan review – freewheeling cross-cultural fun at Celtic Connections
Jokes and intriguing sonic mashups arise from the teaming of Scots folk musician James Yorkston, Lamb bassist Jon Thorne and Indian sarangist Suhail Yusuf Khan

Malcolm Jack

20, Jan, 2016 @5:38 PM

Article image
Top 10 picks of Celtic Connections 2016
From James Robertson to Baaba Maal, John Grant to Lau, here are 10 must-see concerts at Glasgow’s festival of roots music

Kate Molleson

14, Jan, 2016 @1:07 PM

Article image
Lau – review

The UK's best live band cement their status with a soaring, inventive set at the Celtic Collections festival, writes Graeme Virtue

Graeme Virtue

31, Jan, 2014 @1:06 PM

Article image
Julie Fowlis/Celtic Connections gala review – Gaelic song in full force
Gaelic singer Fowlis is flawless during a solo show, while the festival’s 25th-anniversary gala misses its mark

Kate Molleson

21, Jan, 2018 @11:55 AM

Alistair Hulett Tribute - review
The occasion demanded far more of Hulett himself – more of his songs, more anecdotes about him, more reason to celebrate everything he stood for, writes Colin Irwin

Colin Irwin

30, Jan, 2012 @6:35 PM

Summertyne festival – review

The concept was halfway between a roadhouse concert and a chat show celebrating female artists in country music, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

22, Jul, 2013 @5:49 PM

Article image
Jack Bruce and Lau – review
Jack Bruce's rich voice – miraculous in a man of 68 – mesmerised a reverential audience, and you marvelled not only at his durability, but his appetite for new challenges, writes Colin Irwin

Colin Irwin

26, Jan, 2012 @7:10 PM

Raghu Dixit – review
This evening saw Raghu Dixit and his band team up with Bellowhead for some folk-rock with an Indian (and at times Celtic) edge, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

19, Apr, 2012 @4:32 PM

Article image
Margaret Barry: wild Irish woman of the British folk scene
Discovered on a street corner by Alan Lomax, the ‘queen of the Gypsies’ was an untamed talent who outdrank Brendan Behan, insulted Bob Dylan, and filled the Royal Albert Hall. The author of a new show tells her story

Colin Irwin

18, Jan, 2017 @3:37 PM