February 25, 2020
Last year at this time, the award-winning Irish folk quartet Lankum had recently finished its first-ever tour of the US, which included a stop in Cambridge where the band played to a full house in Harvard Square’s Club Passim.
The tour was a foundational experience for Lankum, an opportunity to see how its idiosyncratic blend of Irish ballads, as well as Irish street, Traveler and music hall songs, American folk tradition, original work, and varied acoustic and electronic music-based influences had caught on in the US.
“It all seemed to go very well,” recalls vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Daragh Lynch, who founded the band – originally known as Lynched — with his brother Ian (vocals, uilleann pipes, concertina, whistle) several years ago. “We were very aware that this was our first foray into America, and we certainly weren’t complacent about it. But people definitely seemed on board with the music.”
The concert at Club Passim proved especially meaningful for Lynch and his bandmates, who also include Radie Peat (vocals, concertina, bayan accordion, harmonium and other keyboards) and Cormac MacDiarmada (fiddle, viola, other stringed instruments).
“After the gig had been booked, we did a little research and we learned all about Passim, its history and its lore. Being able to play there was definitely an honor, and the fact that so many people turned out made it all the better.”
Lankum returns to Greater Boston with a March 5 concert at Great Scott in Allston (they’ll also be at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on March 10), carrying even more of a buzz with them than last year, thanks to their third album, “The Livelong Day,” released late last year. The album affirms Lankum’s assuredness in its self-deprecatingly, self-titled “folk miscreants” identity, rough around the edges and not lacking for irreverence or bold experimentation.
More importantly, “Livelong Day” reflects the band’s strong regard for the populist element of folk music – traditional or contemporary – and its attention to the “common” people, particularly those at the margins: hence the inclusion of traditional songs like “Wild Rover” and “Katie Cruel,” and two band originals, “The Young People” – which Lynch wrote in the wake of concerns about depression and suicide among Ireland’s youth — and brother Ian’s “Hunting the Wren,” inspired by the true, tragic story of the Wrens of Curragh, a 19th-century community of women.
Summing up Lankum’s philosophy in this regard, Lynch points to the renowned traditional Irish singer Franke Harte’s quote, “Those in power write the history; those who suffer write the songs.” He adds: “If you look into the background of traditional songs and ballads, there are many that came about as forms of protest, airing grievances about injustice and inequality,” he says. “You can learn a different kind of history through these kinds of songs: what it was like to be a woman, to be poor, to work the hard jobs. Those are often the songs that have captured our attention, and they’ve also served as models or inspiration for the songs that we’ve written.”
“The Livelong Day” can be a challenging listen. Much has been made of its overarching dark tone, the haunting vocal harmonies, the slow and deliberate pacing on most tracks, the bleakly apocalyptic soundscapes with ample use of drones from squeezeboxes, strings and keyboards, and other enigmatic reverberations.
“It’s a natural progression from our earlier albums,” says Lynch. “We’ve always had musical interests that extend to modern, electronic, ambient-sound type of textures, and with the advice and help of our producer John ‘Spud’ Murphy – who has worked with us for a long time – we really pushed them forward here.”
To say “Livelong Day is “dark,” however, does not ipso facto mean it is “depressing.” To be sure, there are some powerful emotions in play here – which again, is rather the point of folk/traditional music – but through its arrangements Lankum invites you to consider the deeper, fuller meanings in the songs, as Lynch explains.
“It’s not that we’ve never done ‘fast’ songs, but our feeling is, slowing things down and creating a sound that brings about a kind of meditative state can make people more attuned to the song, and spend more time listening to the words.”
The version of “Wild Rover” Lankum plays is quite different than the rowdy, foot-stomping pub favorite, and not just because of its minor key: Peat’s spine-tingling lead vocals help locate the regret and sense of loss lurking underneath the apparent bravado of the song’s narrator; you end up really hoping his parents will forgive their prodigal son. While the band credits Drogheda singer Donal Maguire as the source for this variant, their indispensable album liner notes trace the song back to the 17th century.
“It’s got a very interesting backstory,” says Lynch. “You’ll find it as a pro-temperance English ‘broadside’ song in the early 19th century, but it’s basically a rewrite of an even earlier song that was the common ancestor for versions in Ireland, Scotland, England, even North America. But the version most people are familiar with doesn’t really speak to the grief and sorrow this so-called wild rover feels for having wasted his life.”
Most renditions of “Katie Cruel,” an Appalachian song said to date from the American Revolution, tend to be up-tempo, highlighting the verbal intricacies in its chorus: “If I was where I would be/Then I'd be where I am not/Here I am where I must be/Where I would be, I cannot.” Again, Lankum goes the opposite way, emphasizing the song as a lament from a woman whose questionable past has brought her to a sorrowful present, auguring a future that looks equally pessimistic. The band’s liner notes for the song mention that its Scottish relative, “Licht Bob’s Lassie,” makes clear that the protagonist is a sex worker, raising the specter of exploitation only hinted at in “Katie Cruel.” Once more, Peat’s commanding voice sits us squarely in the midst of the narrator’s despair.
The lot of women viewed as outcast also lies at the heart of “Hunting the Wren” – in this case, the unmarried mothers, harvest workers, ex-convicts, alcoholics, prostitutes and free-thinkers “beyond the pale of respectable society” who made up the Wrens of Curragh, as described by the author Rose Doyle in her historical novel “Friends Indeed.” Ian Lynch uses chilling imagery of Ireland’s Wren Day as a metaphor for the Wrens of Curragh’s mistreatment by the authorities and townspeople: “The wren is a small bird/Though blamed for much woe/Her form is derided/Wherever she goes.”
“These women were totally villainized, and suffered greatly,” says Daragh. “But they tried to form a functioning community among themselves, sharing chores and food, looking after each other’s children. Again, it’s an example of the history you don’t hear about.”
Recent decades have seen the forming of an increasingly nationwide conversation about these unsavory chapters in Ireland’s history, and the abuse and neglect of its vulnerable and marginalized populations, as personified by the Magdalene Laundry and clergy sex scandals. Daragh Lynch adds to the discussion with “The Young People,” the latest in a series of Lankum originals that speak to the economic, social ,and mental health challenges faced by a generation bearing the brunt of Ireland’s post-Celtic Tiger malaise.
“Ireland has had a huge problem with male suicide – the ratio of men to women who take their own lives is very significant,” he says. “In Limerick, for example, they’ve recruited volunteers to patrol the river in hopes of keeping people from doing harm to themselves.”
“The Young People” confronts the issue of suicide in the very first lines: “Oh, the day they found him swinging/A day they’ll not soon forget/Four long years ago/It can’t be over yet.” But something happens as the song continues, particularly when it comes to the chorus, where the key shifts from A minor to C major – it becomes an anthem, a call to think deeply about human fragility, as Lynch and his bandmates sing: “When the young people dance/They do not dance forever/It is written in sand/With the softest of feathers.”
“I didn’t write the song to be depressing, or to lecture people,” says Lynch. “It’s saying, ‘Look, life is fleeting, so appreciate what and whom you’ve got, and just try to take care of one another.’”
Two instrumental tracks on “Livelong Day” show yet another side to Lankum. “Bear Creek” – which is a segue from a brooding band original, “Ode to Lullaby” – is a medley of two American fiddle tunes, and MacDiarmada shows a fine touch for the old-timey style; Peat’s prowess on the bayan – the hulking Russian accordion with its formidable bass – also is on display.
“We’re fascinated by traditional music and how it travels,” says Lynch. “The music doesn’t have any respect for borders – it morphs and changes as it moves along to suit the places it ends up. Of course, Irish music had a big effect on the development of American folk music, but American music has this pulse and backbeat we love.”
“The Pride of Petravore,” meanwhile, is Lankum at its most outrageous. A traditional hornpipe, it’s also known as the melody for the song – alternately called “Eileen Oge” – written by Percy French, a ballad full of comically aligned phrases about an improbable courtship. Here, the tune galumphs along to the rhythm of a bowed string bass and a thumped piano, evoking the theme from “Jaws” and the gait of Frankenstein’s monster, while Ian Lynch leads the melody on a pair of tin whistles taped together; toward the end, a trombone wildly crashes into the proceedings, along with other odd noises – among them, Lynch notes, the sound of MacDiarmada smashing a microphone stand into a gong.
No one album track can easily sum up any artist, but “Pride of Petravore” does reveal something of Lankum’s attitude toward its folk repertoire. Make no mistake, they are diligent in their love and respect for traditional music, whether combing through scholarly material and archival recordings or talking (and sometimes singing) with traditional singers. But they don’t view the tunes and songs as “museum pieces that you’re handling with white gloves,” as Ian Lynch explained in a 2019 BIR interview.
“Martin Carthy, the great English singer and guitarist, had the best view on it: He said that the worst thing you can do to a traditional song or tune is to not play it,” says Daragh. “There’s such a thing as treating the music with too much respect. These tunes and songs have been passed around for decades – for centuries – and they’ve survived because people took them on and put something of themselves into them in the process. That’s how we approach it.”
Information on Lankum’s US tour, including links to buy tickets, is available at the band’s website, lankumdublin.com.