One of the standout concerts in the continuing Other Voices Courage series – livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube and broadcast later on RTE television – has been Lankum’s recent decampment from Dublin’s fair city to the salubrious surrounds of Kilkenny Castle.
Under the baleful gaze of many of the great and the good of another age so remote from the life experiences of most of the people of that time, never mind our own time, the band produced a remarkable set – with its raw hard edge defiantly challenging the literal big wigs hanging on the wall.
The band’s arrangement of the opening song, The Wild Rover, typifies their approach. No longer the rollicking jovial drinking song, the Rover has returned to its original narrative about the destructive capacity of alcohol. Radie’s powerful lead vocals and the harmonies of her three bandmates on the chorus are underpinned by the dark earthy tones of the reed instruments – Radie’s bayan and Ian’s concertina – are set against the strings of Cormac’s fiddle and Daragh’s guitar. The instrumental arrangement that follows the song intensifies the darkness with dissonant undertones.
After Ian has dealt with an invisible heckler – doing his best to recreate the atmosphere of a packed live gig or perhaps imagining a rebuke from one of the alien gentry hanging above him – the band launched into the instrumental Lullaby from their first album, Cold Old Fire.
Down in the Willow Garden/Rose Connolly which provided the title for the band’s second album, Between the Earth and Sky is generally considered to be an Appalachian murder ballad – though with likely Irish roots. The subject matter is very much grist to the Lankum as a young man faces the gallows after poisoning and stabbing his lover before throwing her in the river.
Another track from the Cold Old Fire.album, Henry My Song features Ian taking the lead with the rest of the band harmonising on the refrain and then on the uptempo closing section. While the song is particularly associated with Frank Harte, Lankum have made the song their own through their characteristic vocal treatment.
An Appalachian song, Katie Cruel, was originally arranged for a film to be set in post-apocalyptic Ireland, which did not come to fruition. But the band decided to include on their latest album, The Livelong Day. While Lankum’s rendition was inspired by Karen Dalton, the song is also believed to be related to the Scottish song, Licht Bob’s Lassie, which has been recorded by a variety of singers. In Lankum’s performance, Cormac’s understated harmonies softening Radie’s necessarily stark lead vocals as they cut through the dark drones and raw reeds with Daragh bowing his guitar to create a cello-like tone.
The final piece of the gig is another track from The Livelong Day – the American old time tune, Bear Creek, where Cormac takes the lead on the fidlle with Radie switching between concertina and harmonium before Ian adds another layer of sound on the pipes – so that the spread of tones fattens out into a full soundscape. Overall, Lankum offer a very satisfying experience – complemented by excellent production values in terms of audio and video quality. All of the acts participating in the Other Voices’ Courage series have been asked to nominate a charity for donations by viewers: Lankum’s nominations are the Irish Traveller Movement (www.itmtrav.ie) and the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group (www.btdg.ie).