LIVE REVIEW: Sam Lee at EartH, Hackney, London

SAM LEE

As the crowd entered the seven hundred and fifty capacity Evolutionary Arts Hackney venue one could not miss a slogan deliberately laid down on the stage: “No Music On A Dead Planet”. It was clear from the outset that this performance was going to be more than just a tour of Sam Lee’s new LP Old Wow; it was going to be an education and a call to take action. Music Declares Emergency whose declaration that the planet is facing “a Climate and Ecological Emergency” who both Lee and Old Wow producer Bernard Butler (Suede, MacAlmont & Butler) have both signed up were present at the EartH.

Lee began the set as he began Old Wow with “The Garden Of England (Seeds Of Love)”. The tranquil start quickly gave way to the pounding drums, piano and strings. The lyrical connection with nature; particularly trees and connection with the land was poignant earned Lee silent respect throughout the song. Once Sam finished withheld cheers and applause were deservedly given to Lee and his ensemble. The poignancy, as well as joy of connecting with the earth, continued with “Spencer The Rover”. The precision of Lee’s diction transmitted the messages and themes including, the fifth of November and the power of the tradition of storytelling to unite people “like bees in one hive”.

Old Wow dominated the set with Lee playing nine of its ten tracks.  “Lay This Body Down” as on Old Wow opened with a Fleet Foxes style “Sun It Rises” introduction which then unassumingly transformed into Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” inspired arrangements. The seriousness, suspense of the distorted piano keys, deep distorted bass and brass inject urgency and poignancy to the subject matter of burials, death and walking through graveyards. With a full band (including Bernard Butler) and the acoustics in EartH; the intensity of the Old Wow LP experience reached an even higher crescendo. As on Old Wow “Lay This Body Down” led to “The Moon Shines Bright”  where the funeral march melancholy along with the life lessons including “the life of a man comes with little plan” and “it flourishes like a flower… so cherish your every hour” in tune to the string section could not be dismissed.

On his second LP Fade In Time Sam sung about the blackbird which he performed. However, it was Lee’s performance of “Turtle Dove” from Old Wow where the themes of climate change, travelling and going on pastures new (ten thousand miles) were at their most transparent. As well as Lee’s powerful vocals; the collective strings, piano and pounding drums with raw, unsmoothed and acerbic bass with feelings of urgency, tension and suspense could be collectively felt at the EartH.

The other standout performances from Old Wow include “Soul Cake”. The subtle swing sound with jazz piano riffs and distorted, vibrating bass lines amidst the motley of strings (baring an indirect correlation to those on Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”) as on Lee’s latest LP, this song about time being a limited resource changed the course of the performance. Likewise, the playout track on Old Wow about the fictional Balnafanen sanguinely brought a mindful reflection about the nature of things to EartH.

Whilst Old Wow disproportionately dominated the set; it did not overshadow Lee’s previous efforts. In fact, his new current activities such as Lee’s Fire Choir (which he runs on Monday evenings in Kings Cross) were adopted on the track “Phoenix Island” from Fade in Time. Sam taught EartH certain sections of “Phoenix Island” and with surprising results got the seven hundred plus crowd to sing rather sweetly in unison. The poignancy of this song about peoples disappearing ancestry in Britain (who Lee has done work to preserve) was felt equally by the audience and Lee.  Non-album a cappella song “Children of Darkness” saw the full power of Lee’s vocals as he harmonised with Cosmo Sheldrake. To play out the set Lee went back to his 2012 Mercury-nominated debut Ground of Its Own with the beautifully multi-layered “Goodbye My Darling”.

Despite the seriousness and urgency of this performance, there was also humour especially when the pianist went off before hastily running back realising they were still needed to play on the next track. Sam was undoubtedly supported by a fantastic band (which on many of the tracks included Bernard Butler); nonetheless, it was Lee, often dancing, taking the lead by explaining the meaning and message of the songs played, being a deft conductor, using his voice soothingly and often whistling in accompaniment to the songs (as he successfully whistles for the nightingales) made this performance unforgettable and for many a call to take action.

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