Dublin based four piece Lankum arrived in Bristol on the back of their enthusiastically received third album The Livelong Day. Five star reviews and mentions in end of year best of lists have already been plentiful. Tonight they are playing to a packed and sweaty, sold out Fiddlers. Word has travelled fast. They are clearly touched the 450 odd people should want to come out on a freezing cold school night to check out their band.
There has been some extraordinary music in the not too distant past when Irish folk has found itself sitting happily with the then new sounds of the day. In the mid-70s Moving Hearts and Planxty found a unique mix with the progressive art rock of that time. The next decade gave The Pogues riotous melding of the traditional with the chop and clang of punk rock. Lankum have now dragged a unique new sound from this tradition. Tonight we have drinking songs aplenty, riotous jigs and reels but married to dark drones, scraped strings and harrowing vocals.
The heritage of The Dubliners crashing into the darkest Late Junction playlist you could imagine. They open with The Wild Rover. Yes, that Wild Rover. Possibly the most ubiquitous Irish drinking song in the book. Depending on when you came in you may most readily associate this with the aforementioned Dubliners or Pogues, or if unfortunately mistimed even the likes of Foster and Allen. You’ve never heard it like this before and no one is going to singalong. Radie Peat’s vocal is sparse, urgent and pained, the strings swell behind her like an air raid siren underpinned by an ominous harmonium drone. It is lengthy, startling and brutally beautiful.
The Young People, also from the new record, opens with a sweet strum but married to the darkest of lyrics. They are reverent to their tradition as the song swells to its marching climax but they have found a new perspective on this stuff. For a band so baked in a traditional form they sound very now. A new idea having its moment.
Between song banter is easy and light, in striking contrast to the darkness of the material. You’d love to be down the pub with them, there is not a hint of pretension. Happy birthdays are sung and when a string is broken driver Beanie is welcomed on stage for her moment in the spotlight.
Hunting The Wren is an ominous original telling of the lives of women living in nest-like shelters in County Kildare. It sits mid set with Katie Cruel as dark an exploration of Irish folk song as anything the Waterson family ever recorded. This is contrasted with raucously celebratory virtuoso instrumental passages which gets this youngish audience (unusually so for a folk gig) moving in unison. There is a touching end as Frankie Armstrong joins the band for The Old Man From Over the Sea. She is responsible for originally teaching Radie the tune and there is obvious joy for both in sharing the vocal across the generations tonight.
It has been a remarkable show. You could equally file them away with the film scores of Mica Levi or The Bad Seeds at their darkest. They’ve been doing this for a while now and their interplay and musicianship is a real delight. They may have just made the album of the year and this is certainly one of my gigs of the year. Don’t miss them next time for their time is now and they deserved to be heard.
Images from Harry McPhillimy.