Having earned a Mercury Prize nomination for his debut album, Ground Of Its Own, and found praise heaped upon its follow-up, last year’s stunning The Fade In Time, it’s a tall order to keep expectation in check when faced with the 30-something singer who is almost routinely feted as both the guardian and saviour of traditional music.
He’s neither of course, but that in no way diminishes him as a compelling and astute performer of the songs he’s steeped in, deftly illuminating the intimate surrounds of a studio space with music that might be better suited to a campfire, caravan or cosy pub.
Aided by the richly talented Friends – Flora Curzon (violin, vocals), Jon Whitten (uke, piano, Mongolian dulcimer, vocals) and inventive percussionist David Beauchamp – Lee continues to find fresh ways into ancient songs, some with traditions that can be traced back a thousand years.
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, for example, is a song from the Napoleonic Wars that manages to touch on the union of England, Scotland and Ireland as well as the political tension in Russia. Lee learned the song from Freda Black, one of many songs he has absorbed from gypsy singers – he’s probably best known for the time he spent as apprentice to the late Stanley Robinson, nephew of the great Scottish traveller singer Jeannie Robertson.
The final song she taught Stanley on her deathbed – and one of the last ones he passed on to Sam Lee – was the tender lament The Moon Shone On My Bed Last Night. Lee quips that he keeps it death-free by omitting the fourth verse, neatly encapsulating his laudably bold approach to the material – while not exactly irreverent neither is he confined by the history of the songs. His work as an archivist and collector – aural archaeologist if you like – is beyond reproach, but he’s unafraid to move the songs on, developing a distinctive modal vocal melody on Blackbird and rewriting The Jew’s Garden (originally used to incite anti-Semitic hatred) because ‘if the story goes untold it is lost’. It was also rendered with two Jews harps – the first of several inventive and unusual sonic arrangements – and a brief semantic explanation of the instrument’s name.
In lesser company this could have felt like a lecture with music, but instead it was a warm invitation gratefully accepted (by a small but enthused audience) to connect with songs our forebears would have known and join in the hope our children may yet discover them as well – a song such as Moss House, with its roots in Irish traveller culture and mystical notions of time slip, is a telling reminder of a lost sense being swamped by modern mores. The pathos-laden pause at its end before the applause begins spoke volumes about its effect.
That Sam Lee is also a skilled singer – and handy with the amplified shruti box to boot – served to further cement a most memorable experience in the mind.