Sam Lee is, first and foremost, a collector of folk songs, in the Alan Lomax tradition of field collection, actually going around to local communities and notating down the songs that are being sung. You could see this in the excitement in his eyes when he announced at his show at Jammin’ Java on Sunday that he and his band had been invited to peruse the Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress the next day. While many might find it a surprise that, in this digital age where seemingly everyone is connected and pop culture has taken over, there are even still folk songs to collect, Lee has been at it for several years now, primarily among the Gypsy and traveller communities of the British isles. Earlier this year, Lee released his second album of traditional material, The Fade In Time.
But one thing that Lee isn’t is a strict traditionalist. In his live performance as in his recordings, he brings a modern feel to the songs, reworking them as he sees fit to make them sound current. In particular, percussionist Josh Green’s jazz sensibilities stand out as an unexpected surprise within the songs, with violinist Flora Curzon adapting her otherwise traditional sounding fiddle parts to fit with the beat. Multi-instrumentalist John Whitten switched between dulcimer, piano, and ukulele. Lee himself played droning instruments which provided the base of the songs – shruti box (an instrument similar to a harmonium) and jaw harp (which, he noted, is his favorite instrument).
Lee played songs from both of his albums, including tracks such as “The Ballad of George Collins,” “On Yonder Hill,” and “Wild Wood Amber” from 2012’s Ground of Its Own, and “Blackbird,” “Moorlough Maggie,” and “Phoenix Island” from the new album. Frequently he would pause between songs to explain something about them – their history, their meaning, and/or the background of the communities from which they were collected. The overall effect was to make it not simply a night of great music, but a fascinating view into the cultural traditions of the British isles as well.
Birds of Chicago, the husband and wife duo of JT Nero and Allison Russell, opened the show.
All photos by Matt Condon. Click to embiggen.