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8th February 2024

Lankum live in Manchester: Dark yet optimistic trad-folk

Lankum’s dissonant, trad-folk aesthetics capture the collective mood, but leaves us feeling both optimistic and introspective
Lankum live in Manchester: Dark yet optimistic trad-folk
Lankum @ The Albert Hall

Lankum are very, very good. It’s no exaggeration to say they’re probably the most talked about band in trad-folk circles today. But, beyond the obvious – that being their critical acclaim – it seems surprisingly difficult to explain their relative stardom.

False Lankum, their most recent release, erases any hint of accessibility through its slow, haunting, instrumental builders, veering the band away from the obvious trajectory that ought to see them reaching for even greater popular appeal. Their live performance, similarly, is not always an easy listen; it is eerie and dark, yet also often beautiful and thoughtful.

Nor can it be explained by raw stardom qualities, although Ian’s and Daragh’s fun Irish charm shines throughout the concert, as band members sit quietly in the darkness on stage, tuning their instruments to a sold-out crowd before they begin performing. Instead, perhaps the concurrent folk revival tells a more convincing story of our search for rootedness in an increasingly alienating, isolated Capitalist world, and our turning to heritage to do so. Lankum simply happens to do it the best, capturing the collective mood incisively. 

We arrive as the support, Rachael Lavelle, is performing her last few songs. Her peculiar, crooning voice echoes serenely throughout the Albert Hall, utilising the wonderful acoustics. Powerful electronic sounds leave a lingering liminality in the room, setting the tone for what is to be a drony, hypnotic night.

Lankum begin their gig with epic ‘The Wild Rover’, opener of their third album, building outward from Radie’s voice accompanied by a fiddle, eking gradually into a crescendo of grand proportions. Their stunning harmonies chant the often-told story of a young man who returns to settle home from his ‘roving’. A spiritual reminder, perhaps, of the need to ground our restless, roaming minds from all the horrors we see unfolding around the world.

A huge Palestine flag lays draped over an even larger bass drum, reflecting the explicitly pro-Palestine stance Lankum have taken (in true Irish-solidarity style) leading to a cancellation of their gig in Germany. It’s evidently a popular stance, partly thanks to Manchester’s socialist roots, as the crowd roar in support of their words of solidarity, already energised by Ian’s comment “FUCK that cunt Rishi Sunak!”

‘The New York Trader’ follows, from ‘False Lankum’, a gruesome tale of a murderous ship captain. Fast-paced, urgent fiddle melodies combine with frankly terrifying dissonant drones to turn what ought to be a ceilidh-friendly tune into a disturbingly warped one. Lankum’s impressive creativity shines during these slow-build songs, rarely giving us what we want but always keeping us hooked.

An ode to their excellence is that the trend of experimental folk-ambience that they fronted is now being built on by other impressive bands, such as Shovel Dance Collective and Manchester’s very own Brown Wimpenny. Part of their Manchester appeal derives from Manchester’s deep-rooted Irish diaspora, aiding the city in boasting a vibrant and long-running folk scene. My folky friends constantly remark on how a new folk-related event seems to crop up constantly; Blether, Gay Gordon, Carnifolk – the list is unending.  

Soft ballad ‘The Young People’, reminding us to cherish our friendships, offers brief respite from gothic tragedy, but Lankum never strays far from their dark, bassy instrumentals. They are performing to a mixed-aged crowd, those from the 2nd folk revival of John Martyn and Martin Carthy’s era brought together with those of us in Manchester a part of today’s revival; queer, young, radical, and all searching for meaning.

Perhaps two very culturally distinct crowds experiencing folk music in the same space is, in itself, a profound act of friendship and love. We are grounded together, as one; students, and the people we inherited the culture from. An impressive breadth of their discography is covered, as they perform a number of songs from their first and second albums. In between tunes they tell us stories of their days as session musicians who started the band almost as a joke; it is clear they were never really prepared for the level of popularity they now experience. The witty jokes they crack only reinforce how down-to-earth the whole experience is, despite the grandiosity of the songs. 

‘Go Dig My Grave’, False Lankum’s opener, is perhaps the highlight of the concert. Haunting, twangy strings send collective shivers down our backs, as pounding drums suddenly rock the room into a shocked trance. I don’t speak lightly when I say this is one of the most disturbing, transcendental songs I’ve ever seen performed live; I was utterly transfixed for almost ten minutes. Lankum’s final two songs, ‘Cold Old Fire’, followed by an extended version of fiddle-led tune ‘Bear Creek’ are incredibly cathartic. Both are beautiful and soaring, both are continually dissonant yet satisfying, and in Lankum’s usual style, it is never entirely clear when the songs begin and end. They are interjected by a heartwarming tribute to the late folk legend Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues, where Lankum were invited to play at his birthday, along with late singer and radical queer icon Sinéad O’Connor.

Lankum leave the stage to raucous approval, having performed a haunting yet introspective concert which reminds us why folk music is so popular again today. They lead a culture of taking the heritage we receive and making our own mark on it, a process of radical reflexivity which encourages us to not cast off heritage as ‘backwards’ or ‘nostalgic’, but rather as a way to remain rooted in an isolating world through the beautiful musical traditions of the British Isles.

It is a culture that Manchester holds a strong claim to be leading, and all students should keep their eyes on what direction it is heading in. 

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