As Lankum settle themselves into the cosy surroundings of Saint George’s Church in Brighton’s Kemp Town area, they begin their set with a drone. It’s a low, sonorous thing; something to resound through the timber and rattle the stain glass windows. A good church show can work well for a band like Lankum and they use the venue to their advantage throughout their 90 minute set. They begin the show with ‘What Will Do When We Have No Money?’ the gut-wrenchingly powerful ballad that opens last year’s ‘Between The Earth And Sky’. It is, like so many of Lankum’s pieces, a dirge in the best possible way; the tempo practically crawls along, the key is resolutely minor and the lyrics are soaked deep with the kind of profound trouble which has informed Irish Folk for millennia – but, more than any of that, it’s resilient and deeply powerful. It’s a beautiful piece and one that band member Radie Peat delivers stunningly, the rest of the group joining in for choice and damn-near perfectly blended harmonies.
Considering that this is the Irish quartet’s first ever show in Brighton, their reputation clearly precedes them as they play tonight to a packed and remarkably enthusiastic crowd. While the gleeful whoops and woefully out of time foot-stomping might have something to do with the festival audience (their show is part of the near-month-long Brighton Festival) having been stocked up on copious booze, there’s no denying the band more than earn their standing ovation by the end of the show. It’s a rare group that can accurately reproduce the tone and style of their studio work without being limited by it but Lankum can be counted as one of them, as their set expands upon songs that have appeared on all three of their albums without fundamentally changing them to the point where they lose the charm of their recorded counterparts. Much like their studio output, live Lankum oscillate between jaunty Celtic jigs, achingly melancholic expanses based in drone and moody folk songs both (relatively) new and old.
The really impressive thing about Lankum’s live set is the fact that no matter what they turn their hands to, it feels unified by a common thread – despite their set running the gauntlet from ecstatically dirty pub singalongs (as they do during their rowdy encore) to sombre, sparse meditations on the plight of the Irish working classes. Chat between songs is entertaining and stays just the right side of rambling as the group’s various members recount tales from the road both in and out of Éire, all humorous in nature and often times giving welcome context to the – at times – rather obscure meaning of the folk songs they perform. When the band cease the chat and actually get down to playing their songs, they do so with a rare mixture of tact and aplomb, easing off when necessary and underplaying whenever the song demands it – as the delicate finery of their slower pieces often do. Likewise Lankum have no qualms about kicking into a higher gear when the mood strikes, often resulting in a beery clap-along from the packed rafters in the overhead seating.
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‘Between The Earth And Sky’ proved that the group have no reservations in stretching out folk songs until they become something not far off meditations, allowing some songs to near the 10 minute mark before they round things off. When live this is only taken to greater extremes and, before one particularly lengthy medley, the audience is warned that they’re about to be taken “down a rabbit hole”. The following fifteen minutes or so certainly prove the warning to ring true but surely not a single person in attendance minded as it’s moments like this which prove to be some of the most powerfully revelatory of the set.
Lankum walk a thin line between tradition and innovation; their set tonight is, as per their recorded output, played entirely on traditional acoustic instrumentation and many – though not all – of the songs they perform are genuinely old folk songs. Despite all this, the band are something of an outlier at the moment; they’re too steeped in Irish folk tradition to put in the same bracket as many of the fresh-faced folk singer-songwriters to have come out the US and UK over the past few years and they’re likewise too experimental and irreverent to truly find a seat at the table of out-and-out traditionalism. No matter what classification (if any) Lankum fit into, however, one thing is clear: they are a joy to witness and one of the most engaging folk acts currently on the live circuit.