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Sam Lee

"This is folk for now; upbeat, uplifting and highly unique."

Thursday 14th October, 7.30pm 

Firth Hall, Sheffield University

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All photographs by Don Murray

Welcome to this two part review which nicely reflects the very distinctive performances in each half of the gig, with Sam singing three tunes, acapella syle, during the interview set; and then the whole Old Wow+ set in the second half. My thanks to Isabel O'Leary for the first half and Olivia Cox for the second. 


Thanks to Nick Potter and his University team for their collaboration and accomplished production on the night. The sound and lighting for the performance were stunning. And thanks, as always, to all the Talking Gigs volunteers.


“I found Sam’s pure, unaccompanied voice in the acoustic of Firth Hall to be powerful and evocative…. and certainly compelling listening”. Words by Isabel O'Leary

I have only been to a few Talking Gigs, but know that the format is the same each time with first half consisting of a conversation between Alasdair Dempster and the artist/s.

So, first we heard Sam’s speaking voice, and boy, is he articulate.  Alasdair had clearly done his research, and was asking about Sam’s earlier life before he came to music. This was fascinating, as Sam has led a rich life and packed in a lot so far with only a fairly brief question needed for him to give a full response, sometimes bordering on the philosophical or spiritual.

Alasdair asked Sam about his time as a wilderness survival expert and how that lead to his musical interest. This quote from a Guardian article in 2012 may summarise the explanation Sam gave at the Talking Gig:

"What is wilderness in this country, where there is no real unspoilt land? I see wilderness in Britain as stinging nettles submerging a disused rubbish tip. Or a Gypsy camp, washing hanging between the caravans. Gypsies and nettles fit into any landscape, and Gypsy folk song is made-up cultural nettles."

Sam talked about meeting and learning traditional songs from Stanley Robertson who was from a family of Scottish Travellers and folk singers.  This began Sam’s immersion into the world of British folk music, particularly from the Gypsy and traditional Traveller communities.  Sam has become a collector and conservationist of traditional British songs. I loved his account of going to the cottage of an elderly woman from an Irish Traveller family well known for their singing. Having claimed not to know any songs, when Sam sang her a tune, deliberately getting it wrong, she corrected him by singing her version and proceeded to share many songs, some of which Sam was unaware of despite his extensive research. The woman’s family were amazed, as they had never heard her singing before.

Then came the moment I was waiting for, Sam singing. He chose the song ‘Moorlough Maggie’ which Sam's mentor Stanley Robertson had written. This mesmerising, accapella rendition filled the hall.

Asked whether these old songs remain relevant today, Sam talked about his love for the natural world and how this has become so important to all of us. He told the story of an ancient oak tree in Portmore, Northern Ireland being cut down centuries ago, possibly by the English, and the anguish this caused the locals.  He illustrated this story with his second song, ‘Bonny Portmore’.  Sam suggested this could be relevant to the pain of Sheffield people at the recent felling of thousands of mature Sheffield street trees, and applauded the efforts of local campaigners to save the trees.

Alasdair referred to Sam’s recent book “The Nightingale” and Sam spoke about the purity of the nightingale’s song, and the importance of that bird in the folklore and song traditions throughout the northern hemisphere. He is clearly passionate about the natural environment, and birds in particular. He spoke of the “Singing with Nightingales” events he runs in a Sussex wood each spring. I was so intrigued I googled it, and am listening as I write. Wonderful.

His final illustration was a rendition of ‘Birds in the Spring’.

I’m not always a fan of British folk singing.  However, I found Sam’s pure, unaccompanied voice in the acoustic of Firth Hall to be powerful and evocative of centuries of British history and certainly compelling listening.


“This is folk for now; upbeat, uplifting and highly unique”.  Words by Olivia Cox

The second half of the performance consisted of the full set of the tour ‘Old Wow Plus’ with the full band including; piano (James Keay), violin (Joseph O’Keefe), double bass (Misha Mullov-Abbado) and percussion (Josh Green).

From the accapella and deeply traditional renditions of the first half, the second set evolved into a distinctive, fusion of musical composition that soared with passion and personality.  This is not folk as it was, though clearly it’s inspiration comes from Sam’s clear love of the historical tradition. This is folk for now; upbeat, uplifting and highly unique. 

In the grand, magically lit, Firth Hall of Sheffield University, with it’s towering windows, wood panelling and lofty ceiling, Sam beguiled the audience with his engaging personality and powerful storytelling.  Performing in his stocking feet to a full hall bedecked with oil portraits of gowned academics, Sam cut through convention to reveal the zeal of his message.  Did it matter that the pianist was performing at a Steinway in his white vest?  No – the music was powerful and meaningful in so many ways.

For me, and many of the people around me, the point of note during this performance was a song with audience participation – yes, Sam DID succeed in inspiring the audience to participate en mass.  He guided us into the melody and brought our combined voices to full and gentle fruition that faded to a repeated refrain sung only by the audience and eventual silence.  It was almost a spiritual experience!

Sam’s expressive and versatile voice powered through the set of playful, poetic, jazzy and soulful renditions.   He danced his way though the performance, reminiscent of a folky Mick Jagger.  The band were consummate musicians, patient with Sam’s storytelling and committed to the ethos of this tour.

One might be forgiven for not liking folk or not being drawn to Sam’s style.  What we can’t deny is the message Sam is trying to portray.  It’s about the historical record within musical tradition, it’s about our relationship with nature and it’s about encouraging us all to hear the urgency of the song.

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