Seth Lakeman – A Pilgrim’s Tale: Album Review

Release Date:   7th February 2020

Label:  BMG

Formats: CD, DL, vinyl

“If you’ve never heard anything about The Mayflower and the birth of the modern USA, these words and music could be your primer.” Not our words but those of Seth Lakeman. All going to prove there’s nothing wrong with a bit of shameless self-promotion.

Taking a leaf from a recent trend in folk music to combine music and narrative in the style of the revival of the ‘folk opera’ The Transports, Sam Sweeney’s Made In The Great War and The Young’uns outstanding Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, Seth Lakeman has focused on the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower on their voyage of hope to similar effect.

Opting for an approach that for once seemingly sidetracks his trademark folk tales of Dartmoor and the South West, Seth’s written a set that form a musical and fictional narrative of the pilgrim’s journey. Having said that The Mayflower Steps in Plymouth are where he spent (possibly even misspent) many an hour of his youth; a case of the apple not falling too far from the tree.

He’s done his homework thoroughly, taking advantage of his American jaunts as part of Robert Plant’s band to research and gather source material from, amongst others,  the modern day ancestors of the Wampanoag people in Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. True to form, he’s also retained a close knit back up team with his regular right hand man Ben Nicholls as well as the familiar names of Benji Kirkpatrick, sister-in-law Cara Dillon and his dad Geoff.

Paul McGann provides a narration that links the songs, which on the one hand celebrate a key moment in history yet also highlight the trials, tribulations and nefarious deeds of the pilgrims of four hundred years ago.

Musically, it’s a return to the more stripped back – organic if you will – style that characterised Tales From The Barrel House back in 2014 after a period of testing out a more mainstream direction. Look on The Pilgrim’s Tale as a series of Seth plus one so the twelve songs see the combination of Seth performing as a duo with one (or occasionally more) of his musical compadres; to be brutally frank, it’s all the better for the return to a rootsier sound and maybe some credit to the Plant influence in shaping the direction of his more recent work and live shows. There’s a strong presence of a slow bluesy fiddle that hangs over the album like the ghost of his recent past.

Despite the curtain raising strains of Watch Out opening the sequence with the premonitions of a Wampanoag girl, there’s a sense of hope in Westward Bound and eventual closure that sees Seth and Benji combining on  Mayflower Waltz.

Three songs see Seth mining the traditional with Pilgrim Brother, Sailing Time, both of which reflect the healthy optimism of the times and The Digging Song. It leaves the bulk of the material coming from his own hand and where his storytelling takes on a sharper focus; having a tale to tell always brings out the best. It’s where he’s reaped the most reward in the past – think of the strength of the combination of music and writing when there’s a story to tell – Solomon Browne, Kitty Jay and 1643 from his earlier days spring immediately to mind.

He’s done a grand job in conveying the trepidation in heading westwards and dotting in haunting moments where the fiddle and viola drones create an eerie and hypnotic atmosphere. The subject matter becomes melancholy and reflective, with Cara Dillon adding a subtle class to Saints And Strangers and particularly Bury Nights, the latter an emotional, touching and glorious album highlight. On the other hand, there’s the sense of achievement and celebration and a hark back to a Kitty Jay urgency to The Great Iron Screw when the four-piece ensemble kicks into action.

Seth’s already out on a tour which takes in locations which hold some significance to the Mayflower journey – not much use for us Northern folk, but in terms of an all-encompassing experience, playing the places which are significant in the story makes sense.

And with his radio show – Seth Lakeman’s Folk Map of the British Isles – going down a treat (we chatted to him about it when we bumped into him last year’s Folk Awards at the Bridgewater Hall…incidentally, the place where I first saw him play way back in 2006) he seems to have found a new calling; one at which he seems to have taken to most effectively. Seth Lakeman – the pilgrim personified.

Listen to Watch Out for from the album here:

Seth Lakeman online:  website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Youtube

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