Review + photography by John Bentley

I hadn’t heard of Lankum until a few weeks ago, when I read a five star review of their latest (and third) album ‘The Livelong Day’ in a music magazine. I checked-out some of their songs and they sounded great: I also found some more rave press reviews, all of them four or five star. So I’ve grabbed the opportunity to see Lankum live at Leeds. After the gig I bought the new album and have been playing it non-stop since then: I have to say that this (maybe along with the new Warmduscher album) is my nominee for the best album of 2019. However, coming out so late in the year and falling under the broad category of ‘folk’, as it does, it will probably get overlooked in the music press’s ‘best of 2019 reviews’.

There’s a diverse audience for tonight’s near sold-out gig, including a guy arriving with his fold-up Brompton bike, which he parks in the bar area.

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

Opening act is a Dubliner, one John Francis Flynn. With a style based around Irish and other traditional music, he tells us that he has to use his full name because of all the other John Flynns about. Singing with just an acoustic guitar held high on his chest, he is an absorbing performer. The first song concerns prison life, accompanying himself with droney guitar, apparently strumming with his thumb. He then skilfully plays an instrumental with two tin whistles simultaneously, a trick also picked up by fellow Dubliners Lankum later on. ‘Lovely Joan’, meanwhile, is a song learnt from legendary English folk singer Shirley Collins, sounding very Bert Jansch-ish in his version. Like Lankum, who follow, it’s traditional-based music with a highly original slant.

John Francis Flynn, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

John Francis Flynn, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

Lankum are a quartet made up of bothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Cormac MacDiamada and Radie Peat. Between them they play an impressive range of instruments on stage, including harmonium, uillean pipes, violin, concertina, tin whistle and guitar. Listening to the majestic racket they make, it’s notable that they do this with none of the usual bass and drums. Much of the repertoire is adapted from Irish and other traditional music, with just two self-composed tunes appearing on the new album. However, this isn’t traditional music as you might imagine it. They really have turned the whole genre on its head. The performance owes a lot to styles you wouldn’t associate with Irish traditional music, like experimental and electronic music, drone, punk and movie soundtracks.

This is evident straight away in the opening number, the well known ‘The Wild Rover’, which tends to be known as a traditional Irish drinking song, popularised by bands like The Dubliners. However, Lankum have dug deeper. It’s a song that probably has Scottish origins and may have actually been written as a temperance song – that is preaching against the ‘demon’ drink. In the hands of Lankum it is transformed from a merry boozing sing-along into a magnificent, rather sinister ten-minute dirge, reflecting on the fortunes of life. Starting with a repetitive fiddle riff (played by MacDiamada) the song (sung by Peat), builds to a magnificent climactic droning racket, filled-out by Peat’s gothic-sounding harmonium and Ian Lynch’s concertina. Who needs bass and drums.

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

Second song, ‘The Young People’ is a band-written song that sounds ‘traditional’, even though it isn’t. However, the gorgeous, lilting tune sung by Ian Lynch is undercut by the fact that it starts off with a suicide, even though the more upbeat message is to value those around you while you can. The set really has a lot of contrasts and surprises, particularly when we get to instrumental ‘The Pride of Petravore’: it’s for fans of fantasy and Lord of the Rings, Ian Lynch tells us. Based on a traditional tune, it starts off experimentally with tin whistle notes, harmonium drone and heavily bowed guitar and violin, before it leaps off into a stomping tin whistle-led tune. This really is unusual and experimental stuff and rather brilliant: ‘folk music’ perhaps, but not as we know it. Meanwhile in a different vein, ‘Henry My Son’ features some delicious group harmony singing.

While so many of their songs feature doom and gloom and human folly, the band are fun and have a real sense of humour. There is a fair old continuing banter with the audience, with Ian Lynch telling a particularly saucy story from the days he busked in Leeds, referencing two dogs called Mucky Pup and Jasper.

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

A highlight of the evening is Lankum’s version of traditional American song ‘Katie Cruel’. The song has been much covered, the best known version being by the late tragic American folk singer Karen Dalton. Nick Cave even rewrote the song as ‘When I First Came to Town’, to sing from a male perspective. The group’s lengthy gothic, baroque arrangement is a magnificent but harrowing version, with Radie Peat’s haunting vocal set above the heaviest instrumental drone of the evening.

The band joke with the audience about whether to do an encore and the craziness of going outside, standing behind the door and then coming back in again, especially with the impracticalities of doing so at some venues. With apparent audience approval it’s agreed they stay on stage and plod on with ‘the encore’, which is two older songs ‘Cold Old Fire’, a tuneful meditation on death, and ‘The Old Man From Over the Sea’, about a rather unsavoury old man who comes to call.

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

This has been a very special evening with a bunch of superb and imaginative musicians giving us a really diverse set of songs, some of which we may think we know but we’ve never heard them played like this. Nothing is predicable and you find yourself eagerly anticipating each new song. Lankum have really ‘arrived’ with their third album and will doubtless be gaining many new fans from visceral performances like this.

Setlist: The Wild Rover; The Young People; Rocky Road to Dublin; Hunting the Wren; The Pride of Petravore; Henry My Son; Katie Cruel / instrumental; Cold Old Fire; The Old Man From Over the Sea

Lankum, Leeds Brudenell Social Club 14/11/19

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