You know the night is turning into a good one when the first act ends with a Tim Buckley song and the main artist opens with one from the Warren Zevon catalogue. Not that this was an evening of cover songs, although the work of Bruce Springsteen and Tim O’Brien was also celebrated before the final curtain came down. This show was entirely owned by the highly accomplished duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman ably supported by a bright new folk starlet in Kitty MacFarlane. Across what were effectively three sets both acts excelled in the power of song, whether interpreting the traditional, covering the influential or primarily sharing the fruits of their song writing output.
Good things were heard about Kitty MacFarlane prior to the announcement that she was going to open for Kathryn and Sean on this extensive tour. With a debut recording safely in a saleable format and literally minutes from hearing one of her tracks played on the BBC Radio Two Folk Show for the first time, Kitty was comfortably settled to maximise every minute of her half hour in the spotlight. She oozed with an air of confidence while delivering a bunch of softly sung and delicately played acoustic songs. In true song writing spirit, Kitty had an intuitive knack of capturing those ordinary moments and turning them into an articulate preserved memory. All five tracks from the recently released EP titled TIDE & TIME were shared with this Bromsgrove audience, of which four were original compositions. ‘Bus Song’ was probably the pick of these on first listen and this turned out to be the track that received the airplay. Kitty wasted little energy in wrapping her delightful vocals around each song in a reassuring way and displayed a stage poise showing a high degree of maturity for a performer still in her early twenties. There is a strongly felt suspicion that we are going to hear a lot more of Kitty MacFarlane and this short set was merely a taster for greater things.
No sooner had Kitty finished off her set with a sincere cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ then Kathryn and Sean immediately appeared with the intent to deliver two sets leaving just one interval break for the audience. Right from the off, the vocal volume was raised with Kathryn having a more powerful song delivery style to Kitty. The choice of song opener in ‘For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer’ by Warren Zevon was an interesting selection, but set the tone well for the remainder of the acclaimed duo’s lengthy time on stage. The centrepiece of their set list was a healthy dose of super tracks from the latest studio album TOMORROW WILL FOLLOW TODAY; an excellent record essential for any collection.
The attributes of Kathryn and Sean as a performing duo are extensive, ranging from an affable charm to merging the artistry of their individual musical talent. Sean uses his considerable guitar playing skills to provide a backdrop to Kathryn’s versatile vocals which are capable of matching the mood of the songs. Likewise when she moves to the piano, the canvas is filled with an evocative sound to pour emotion into the ballads that duly follow. A popular piece in this vein is ‘A Song to Live By’, and one designed for those moments when we all need a pick up. Aided by the innovative greetings card complete with song lyrics, this tune is fast becoming Kathryn and Sean’s most popular, but this is surely followed hot on the heels by the heartfelt account of a lonely whale in ’52 Hertz’.
By association, background and general sound, Kathryn and Sean are right at the core of the British folk scene, yet there exists a strong degree of versatility in their influence to project a range of styles. There is a definite transatlantic feel to some of the songs performed and Sean did comment on the amount of time Kathryn and he spent Stateside several years ago. Amongst the songs featured in their pair of sets tonight was a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Matamoros Banks’ and a country sounding version of Tim O’Brien’s ‘Safe in Your Arms’, which was a request and acted as the encore number. Another American influence was the Appalachian version of ‘The Lusty Smith’, albeit a folk song to cross the ocean and back.
Despite these observations, many of the songs come straight out of the folk mould, whether penning protest pieces like ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’, taking on the traditional in ‘Child Owlet’ or spinning a subject like Mrs Beaton’s cook book into a song titled ‘Dear Isabella’. There were dark numbers such as an alternative take on the mermaid mythology in ‘Rusalka’ and deep personal reflective songs like the ‘Wisdom of Standing Still’. The product of a Kathryn and Sean show is highly memorable, giving the audience plenty to think about and ponder long after the evening has been concluded. One of the evening’s more poignant moments was Kathryn spilling out memories of her youth in ‘The Ballad of Andy Jacobs’ and suggesting the mining community shifts of the eighties might well be replicated in the steel industry today.
This was the second occasion of seeing Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman live in the last six months and they are fast becoming one of my favourite acts on the folk circuit. Perhaps being more informed about their songs helped a second time and they are successful at leaving a positive impression. This performance, coupled with being introduced to the music of Kitty MacFarlane, will linger long in the memory and the Artrix Arts centre in Bromsgrove commissioned a real treat for fans of quality folk tinged songs.