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Sam Lee

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Saturday 12 March 2016

The measure of a good show can often be judged by the way the stage looks upon arrival. Tonight the stage was dominated by the huge Steinway standing majestically to the left, rendering the tiny shruti box, casually propped against the centre chair, positively dwarfed in comparison. The shruti box in turn stood lofty when compared to the smallest instrument on the stage, the Jew's Harp sitting atop an opened wooden box next to the centre monitor. Sixteen mic stands suggested the imminent arrival of a full-on orchestra, but alas, Sam Lee would be accompanied by just three musicians; the centre stage was set for the opening act, a duo from Northumberland who go by the name of The Brothers Gillespie.

James and Sam, unmistakably brothers, both of whom share not only similar voices but hairstyles too, provided a short and laid-back set of songs chiefly culled from their debut release SONGS FROM THE OUTLANDS. Accompanying themselves on guitars, mandolin, fiddle and shruti box, the siblings introduced the Leeds audience to their dreamy soundscapes with such songs as Spancil Hill, Twa Corbies and Devilswater, reminiscent of Robin and Barry Dransfield, for those old enough to remember.

Sam Lee apologised for appearing like a plasterer on his tea break, attired in a work-like t shirt and jeans, insisting that he intended wearing his now familiar shirt and waistcoat but didn't want to upstage Sam Gillespie who appeared likewise. So familiar is the shirt and waistcoat combination these days, that the audience almost insisted that the singer run along and get changed and the singer indeed offered to do so. A quick glance over at the stage manager proved to be the deciding point on that issue and the show continued immediately, t shirt and jeans and all.

Sam Lee has an almost mystical presence whether in t shirt and jeans, gypsy shirt and waistcoat or top hat and tails. He is surrounded by a mystique that is enormously engaging and utterly spellbinding. Moments into the ethereal Over Yonders Hill, it's clear that the voice is the most important instrument in the performance, despite stellar accompaniment courtesy of band regulars Josh Green on percussion and Jon Whitten on Mongolian dulcimer, ukulele and grand piano, with Dan Oates replacing regular fiddler Flora Curzon. I would further mention the sound crew who played their part in making tonight's performance all the more enjoyable with every word, note and percussive sound clearly audible, their attention to detail admirable and very much appreciated.

As the conduit between the gypsy and traveller communities of the British Isles and the audiences Sam Lee performs before, the songs are beautifully evocative of times past and times present. Each performance is treated to its own specific setting, with Josh Green occasionally re-organising his equipment to allow the percussionist to be seated on the floor, to explore an entirely different soundscape on certain songs. The same can be said of the other musicians, including Sam himself, whose shruti drones, jews harp flurries and whistled introductions added to the sonic variety.  With the emphasis being on Sam's most recent album release THE FADE IN TIME , songs such as Moorlough Maggie, Blackbird, Phoenix Island, Bonny Bunch of Roses and Lovely Molly made it into the set as well as one or two older songs including Goodbye Darling and Wild Wood Amber, all of which could certainly be considered a treat for this Leeds audience. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky