Sam Lee and Friends

sam lee

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Sam Lee and Friends – The Phoenix, Exeter, 28
th April, 2015

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This was a gig I imagine Nigel Farage would have avoided. I have no idea what musical ear he actually has – so let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment to propose the likes of ol’ Nige has a capacity to listen in the broadest sense – but it would seem impossible how anyone thus physically facilitated could not be moved by the aural gorgeousness of Sam Lee and Friends performing live. However, my real-world thinking is that Farage would not allow himself to be stirred by the high emotion delivered through such a consummate performance because the songs are sourced by the gypsy/travelling community, including Roma, which represents an ‘outsider’ context with which he nastily struggles and dismisses as alien and dangerous.
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Tonight’s gig at the Phoenix in Exeter was even more charged than this as a political metaphor and reality. The overwhelming, palpable feeling conveyed was the high emotion in old folk ballads about romantic love, but also historical/social representations: the former in, for example, the beautiful The Moon Shone on My Bed Last Night, and the latter, The Bonny Bunch of Roses where this Napoleonic song about the deep bond between England and Scotland [traditional: For England is the heart of oak; Of England, Scotland, and Ireland, The unity can ne’er be broke] resonated nine days before a General Election with echoes of a potential partnership between Labour and the SNP – so perhaps David Cameron would be another no-show for similarly Farage-like prejudices. Maybe Ed too – though I think he is playing a calculatedly coy pre-election game.
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These politicised though apt contextualisations aside, this was a stunning performance to have seen and heard. Sam Lee and Friends performed a solo set that presents a coalescence of the fundamental roots of traditional British folk music with the modern sensibilities of broad musical embellishments/accompaniments. Sam Lee is an important folk archaeologist in the way he is researching, learning and archiving folk song and traditions from a largely gypsy/travelling community, but he is also one of the most glorious performers of this: his voice is a beautiful instrument, a sonorous tenor as resonant live as recorded [or should that be the other way around] that would sonically grace any genre he chose to sing but is and will be memorably attached to the folk idiom he embodies.
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And what a band of friends: Jon Whitten: Mongolian Dulcimer, Piano, Uke, vocals; Josh Green: Percussion, vocals; the gifted Flora Curzon: Violin, vocals. Sam Lee of course has his supreme voice and plays the Shruti box, which amplified, provides a capacious sound. Both he and Jon make the Jews harp sound quite dynamic as a musical instrument; Flora Curzon’s playing provides varied, startling layers of atmosphere, and Josh Green’s percussion adds volume and shifting rhythms to underpin and move the rising emotions that build in so many of the songs.
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The background stories that Lee tells – how and where he learned the songs as well as the meanings of their narratives – is a compelling part of the live experience. It is clear there is profound passion for and rooted knowledge of all aspects of these sounds and semantics, Lee having communed with their lineage in the physical meetings with those who teach/taught him as well as his own spiritual inclinations [his love of nature; his expansive empathy for others]. That empathy gets translated, for example, in songs of isolation and oppression – and resilience – like Jews Garden and Phoenix Island, both of which were performed on this amazing night.
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Mike Ferguson
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