Kathryn Roberts limps on to the stage. Injured. Leaning awkwardly on two crutches. She sits behind a piano. Before a note has played her husband, Sean Lakeman, mutters “It’s like playing with a Marvel superhero”. She shoots him a glance, grins and then proves that she is, indeed, superhuman.
KATHRYN ROBERTS & SEAN LAKEMAN are the reigning BBC Folk Awards duo of the year. If there is any justice in the world they’ll pick up the same award this year too. She is a spiral haired folk goddess. He is the brother of that other famous folky Lakeman. Sean, though, is less inclined toward stamping and ferocious violin thrashing. He errs toward genius guitar playing instead. Within seconds of the two of them taking the stage something is blindingly obvious. These two are proper rock stars. Roberts possessing more charisma whilst sitting down than most singers will ever have. Lakeman throwing guitar god shapes.
Photo: Alan Cole
Dispensing with a traditional Scottish ballad to start with we see how the evening will unfold. Lakeman will bring the wry humour and guitar playing. Roberts will do everything else. Effortlessly. Beautifully. As early as the second song she is forcing comparisons with the great Sandy Denny. She does so, largely, by covering ‘Solo’, from ‘Like an Old Fashioned Waltz’, but also by being in possession of a heart stoppingly pure folk voice. When she sings all of the awards are entirely justified. When she sings the world gets just a tiny bit better. When she sings the audience gape, sigh and then applaud wildly. It’s not just the singing though. Kathryn Roberts also plays that piano. And a flute. And she tells stories. And writes songs about oddly interesting things. As Ange Hardy, another folk singing friend of Downend, recently said “when I grow up I want to be Kathryn Roberts”. She’s not alone.
Much of their set was taken up with songs from their gorgeous third album ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’. Highlights came thick as Devon cream but ’52 Hertz’, a song about a lonely whale singing out of key, was delightful as was the album’s title track. When a song is inspired by Terry Pratchett, is billed as “West Dartmoor protest blues” and deals with political ugliness and austerity you know that it’s going to be good. Oh, and it was. The Roberts voice transcending folk traditions and reaching out to something soulful. It’s a proper Downend Folk Club “moment”.
The song of the night, however, came at the end of the first set. ‘A Song to Live By’ is an anthem for a difficult world. Written for one of their children it urges you to “be the one with the brightest smile”. In these dark times that’s not a bad plea, is it?
The whole evening began in fine style. OLLIE KING is a melodeon player from the very top drawer. When Andy Cutting, no less, describes you as “one of the finest young melodeon players in England” you know you have this squeezebox thing sorted. His set veered through folk and classical canons and was a delight.
Roberts and Lakeman are a dynamic duo, a mini Justice League; they are folk superheroes and they were just super. Man.
- Gavin McNamara