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Sam Lee live review: preserving the old ways through song

Rating:

St Pauls Church, Birmingham, Saturday 6th November 2021

Birmingham is a busy and dirty city. On my way to St Paul’s Church, a venue situated in the Jewellery Quarter, I had to dodge puddles, drunks, and tourists. Stepping inside the church after my fraught journey then, felt all the more like the end of some arduous pilgrimage. The quiet, spacious, and crisp atmosphere inside could not have contrasted more with the business and bawdiness of the streets outside, although it fits perfectly with the music I was about to hear. 

Sam Lee and his band filled St Pauls with their ‘pagan’ sounds such that no hymn or dirge could compare. His music speaks of the tangible seasons of England past and present, carrying the ideal spiritual and soul-nurturing sound, perfect for a time of year when all we see is the detritus of autumnal decay. Outside the golden leaves might be turning to mush but inside the music has a life that is centuries old and far less prone to seasonal alteration.

It wasn’t a gig so much as it was a night of learning and reflection. There was no commercial evidence insight in St Pauls and it felt communal. It was twee too. Lee was accompanied by percussion, a powerfully deep double bass, violin, and piano. Many in the audience appeared more the kind of cosy old folks who would be like to offer cocoa and a story before bedtime, instead of the thinly-veiled bigotry boomers are now associated with. 

Before Lee broke into song he would intone these tales to us, adding a codicil to each song making each performance all the more memorable. 

Lee and his band stood before us in scarves, overcoats, and jumpers to brace the freezing temperatures. That only added to the night’s atmosphere. They were at home there and after a while, so were we. 

Lit up on the altar with a sparkling silver crucifix in the background, his set was the perfect anachronism. Never did Lee’s music overstep the mark or jar the space it occupied. No other venue would be appropriate for such a gig save a barn or a village hall. I doubt either could be found in Birmingham. To be in such a place in the middle of the bustling and loud city felt like the perfect respite before heading back into the cold winters night.  

A self-proclaimed “collector of songs”, his set involves a mix of stories and songs, interchangeable when woven into a cosy and nourishing performance.

Sam Lee is not simply a singer too. A self-proclaimed “collector of songs”, his set involves a mix of stories and songs, interchangeable when woven into a cosy and nourishing performance. Lee is at the forefront of preserving traditions that are hundreds if not thousands of years old. His song collecting sounds like the sort of thing that would have more of a place in the bygone days of Victorian England instead of whatever era we inhabit now. Nonetheless, there is still a great need for it. 

Throughout the night, lasting an all to brief 90-minutes we were told about the likes of Frieda Black and the Connors family. The former a recently deceased Romani Gypsy who had recalled to Lee learning Napoleonic folk ballads from within her grandparents’ horsebox in the early 1900s. The latter an Irish traveller clan, headed by Nan and Buffalo Connors who taught Lee folk songs held in their families for generations, going unwritten and unrecorded save for word of mouth. Before Lee broke into song he would intone these tales to us, adding a codicil to each song making each performance all the more memorable. 

The folk songs Sam Lee sings are one of a kind. Recent favourites from his latest album, Old Wow, like ‘Lay This Body Down’, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, and ‘The Garden of England’ were delivered in his crisp tenor. Lee also mixes a deep poignancy into his sets. His work is not just as a custodian of such folk traditions but as a protector of the environment. He combined this

 

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