6 March 2022
In a building in which the scribes of history and mark makers in art vie with each other for space, and the current 'Seven Sisters' exhibition features some of the most distinct and ancient mark making on the planet, it was wonderful to hear another collector of stories add his voice to the many who have made this city of storytellers and adventurers what it is.
Plymouth's The Box, much more than a Museum and Art Gallery, played host to the westcountry's own Seth Lakeman on Sunday 13 February as the last date on a nine day UK tour to support the release of his latest album, the aptly titled 'Make your mark'. Written during the enforced 18 months live performance break so many musicians had to contend with, the album reinforces his position as a musical force to be reckoned with.
Supported by local singer/songwriter from St Agnes, Winter Mountain (Joe Francis) opened his set with Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark and warmed up the audience with an engaging and intimate set of mostly self-penned songs that broke the ice in this surprisingly acoustically pleasant building. With all that glass it would be easy to expect a mess of reflections but the diffusion panels suspended above the space did their job admirably and it was very easy to hear all the elements present on stage. With a multi-instrumentalist like Seth spanning the a large tonal range the scene was set for a new chapter in this walled cities musical heritage as this new venue set off on its maiden voyage.
The handsome fiddle and tenor guitar playing troubadour opened up with a viola in hand playing the song Lady of the Sea all about a shipwreck on The Lizard from 2006' 'Freedom Fields', an album that had its 15th anniversary last year. Next, he picked up his Irish Bouzouki for The Giant, a tale from the new album about the rescue attempt of a giant of the sea. Inspired by the stranding of a pilot whale in Cornwall, he had sung the song in front of The Box's woolly mammoth earlier in the day in a post shared on his social media.
Then Alex Hart, fresh back from a tour in the USA with Martin Barre joined him on stage for a song based upon the Dartmoor legend of The White Hare, again from 2006's 'Freedom Fields'. It marked the first appearance of his tenor guitar, and was played and sung beautifully as all the opening three songs had, they sounded fantastic but the reaction was, even for a Sunday in a new venue, a little muted. The Box is a new venue however, and by the end of the gig the audience's cautious embrace became an open armed one. Maybe the formal setting threw people a little at first, but this really is a magic space for music.
With Alex Hart rejoining him, this time at the front of the stage, it was fitting in a building hosting the Mayflower 400 exhibition that they sung Bury Nights from 2020's 'A Pilgrim's Tale'. Back up on stage with the fiddle up front and centre, like the 2004 'Kitty Jay' album it came from, and it is back to another Dartmoor Legend, this time, The Bold Knight, with Alex Hart's nicely measured harmonium drones adding more strings to her own already very talented bow. Their voices are so tightly entwined here, including in the inflections, that at times it really does make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.
New song, Coming For You Soon, written in reaction to the over development on Dartmoor warns of environmental vandals and with his dampened electric guitar trotting underneath, like a Dartmoor pony running away from a storm, the menace and undertow makes the song seem like a lynch mob are on their way. It is this ease with which he can conjure up emotional landscapes through sound and melody that has made him such an effective musician.
The most poignant song of the evening was Solomon Browne from 2008's 'Poor Man's Heaven', dedicated to the RNLI and documenting the 1981 Penlee Lifeboat disaster, just like Jeremy Greenaway's sombre and elegiac TV report played upstairs in The Box's Media Lab. Last year's 40th anniversary of the Christmas disaster in Mousehole has not been dulled by the unrelenting winds of time.
Support act Joe Francis joins Seth and Alex on stage with his electric guitar, as Seth picks up the Bouzouki again and with its ringing curtain of sound, changes the tone to one of summer and celebration with new song Side by Side. Alex Hart's New Country vocals again really lift this song and make you think of long hot summer days in Cornish fields. By now the place is starting to warm up, just in time for Seth to pick up his acoustic guitar for the single from the latest 'Make your Mark' album Higher we Aspire. This unashamed pop song with a delicious hook, lifts the spirits and the three voices on stage seem to energise the audience, into responding in kind.
Then in another great display of pacing and stagecraft, another new song about Cornwall from the latest LP is offered up. You can almost see the Huer's Huts looking out to the pilchards in the bay. Shoals To Turn creates a wonderful, almost soundtrack like evocation of that rugged coastline, the redolent guitar washing out across the audience in glimmering sound waves like the silver light off the sea. Timbre is an often overlooked crucial part of Seth's songwriting arsenal, and the subtlety and restraint deployed here, only add to the tidal flow of a song that creeps up on you.
Back to the jangly bouzouki and the anthemic 1643 seals the deal. The home town crowd appreciating this tale of their own city and finally letting go. Joe Francis picks up his harmonica and his blues harp really helps offset Seth's electric guitar for Colliers another classic from 'Freedom Fields'.
It's easy to forget that 12 years before the 2018 tour with Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters, you can already hear in these songs what Plant must have treasured in the both the blues (not just folk) base to Seth's sound, and the mystical element that makes his storytelling so irresistible. Even new song Change (without the banjo here, replaced with tenor guitar) picks up on that Bluegrass feel again with Alex Hart being just as effective a foil as Alison Krauss is to Robert Plant, and Joe Francis blowing a mean harp, bringing an audience clapping along, as Seth hollers like a Ceilidh caller, encouraging the dancers and bringing history to life.
His collaborators leave and the man and fiddle take centre stage. The sweeping melodrama of Kitty Jay leaves you in little doubt, even 18 years later, why the album and the song that carries its title caught the attention of the Mercury Music Prize judges. It's lost none of its power to crystallize what makes this amazing storyteller someone to treasure. Effects aside, the sounds he is able to coax from the fiddle in the song provide an epic bedrock on which is built the lighthouse that first made people sit up and take notice. There is real substance here, but there is also a lightness of touch, something his 11th studio album proves as its songs ring out weeks after hearing it for the first time.
The slow build and the layers of meaning and tempo changes before the frenzied frantic fast ending on Kitty Jay have everyone up on their feet. He returns after a brief step away with Ali and Joe for the encore, and invites his Dad Geoff Lakeman to join him on stage (where he plays spoons). Seth, acoustic guitar in hand, encourages people to come and dance at the front.
Last Rider from 2014's 'Word of Mouth', a tale of a steam train driver's last journey, is helped in its charge down the tracks again by Joe Francis' earthy dirty puffing harp loops, and the rhythmic clanking of Geoff's spoons. Slowing down like a train arriving at the station, Lakeman shows his mastery of taking people on a journey and the crowd are finally free and relieved of all the other dramas and stories that make up their lives for a couple of hours on a drizzly Sunday, in another great new venue for Plymouth. Live music weaves its own magic and Seth Lakeman is a fine magician. The Box blew away some of that dust and has with its inaugural live music event certainly made its mark.