Following the release of their first two albums, Barnsley’s Kathryn Roberts and her Dartmoor husband and musical partner Sean Lakeman, went on hiatus in 2006 to bring up their twin girls, born just a year later. The duo returned to the live circuit in 2011, and released their third album, Hidden People, in 2012 to critical acclaim. At the BBC Folk Awards they were nominated in the Best Original Song and Best Duo categories, winning the latter.
Their show at The Civic was Kathryn’s first show on home turf for a few years and it has been eagerly anticipated – resulting in a sell-out.
If it was the album Hidden People that introduced you to Kathryn and Sean, and you hadn’t seen them perform live before this gig, then the night might have been a surprise – albeit a pleasant one. On record Hidden People sounds big, fusing Americana, Country, 70s folk rock with eastern rhythms, pop and of course traditional British folk music. The album featured contributions from a number of artists; including Sean’s famous brother Seth Lakeman; the award-winning Irish singer Cara Dillon; Levellers’ main man Mark Chadwick; veteran folk legend Dave Burland, Brit folk pioneer Jim Moray and Greta Bondesson from Sweden’s sister trio Baskery.
Live though, it’s just Kathryn and Sean. However, that’s all you need. As soon as Sean hits that guitar, they sound bigger than a duo. The man is a truly awesome and under-rated guitarist, and it’s his ability that bridges that gap between albums two and three. You instantly forget that the production on Hidden People is so much bigger and more varied compared to brilliant ‘1’ and ‘2’. You’d think the difference would show on stage; but a great song is a great song and they all flow seamlessly.
At times they are the perfect acoustic pop act, songs such as 20 Million Things and the first of a couple of new songs, Fifty-Two Hertz – a song about an unlucky in love lonely whale, show that they have a knack of writing timeless songs with both heart and humour. They can also pen a perfect modern folk song too – Money or Jewels and Jackie’s Song – both sit comfortably next to their interpretations of the traditional, such as A Lusty Smith. Their cover of Warren Zevon’s For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer shows that they can make any song their own.
Highlights are plenty, but for me, the duo are at their best when the reverb is jacked up on the vocals, the lights are turned down and their dark sides come out. Hidden People opener Huldra sounds beautiful and haunting; and see the duo standing head and shoulders above their contemporaries. As does their new song Rusalka, about a Russian mermaid who lures men to their deaths on the seabed. It’s unique, exquisite and a perfect fix for my love of a good Murder Ballad.
I imagine for many people in the audience, the eagerly anticipated appearance of the award winning The Ballad of Andy Jacobs was the highlight of the night. The tender and heartfelt song, based upon Kathryn’s memories of the miner’s strikes in Dodworth, Barnsley have a special significance for many this year, the 30th anniversary of the strikes. The focus for this song is on Kathryn, alone with just piano and her words, and it is probably one of the finest British folk songs, in the truest sense of the word, written in the last decade. She has one of the most beautiful, versatile and honest voices in the genre – or indeed any genre. In my mind, she is Barnsley’s leading folk export, and that Best Duo award was more than justified.
I urge you to go and see Kathryn and Sean perform at your next opportunity. You’ll not be disappointed.
Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman play live at Wath Folk Festival on Sunday 4th May. http://wathfestival.org.uk/
Hidden People is out now on Navigator Records.