As I write this, Lankum are about to embark on a two-night stand at Vicar Street in Dublin. I haven’t suddenly developed the gift of precognition, though; this is a review of their most recent concert there, in October of last year.
This was an evening of pleasant alignments and serendipities. In Dublin for the weekend to see Philip Glass, I had a free evening and naturally looked around to see what else was on offer. My eye alighted on Lankum, a contemporary Irish folk group of whom I was vaguely aware due to the fact that they played in Geneva last year. I didn’t, however, go along on that occasion, so their Dublin concert was a perfect opportunity to rectify the omission.
My only problem was that the concert was sold out, and tickets were hard to come by for what was Lankum’s first hometown show in two years. Ticketmaster was no help at all, and the most reliable avenue for picking up surplus tickets, the Facebook event page, wasn’t initially playing ball either. The latter did eventually land me a ticket, although it wasn’t exactly the one I’d been hoping for, being right at the back in the balcony standing section of the Vicar Street venue. This narrow, elevated zone seemed to be populated largely by people walking to and from the bar, paying precious little attention to the music. It was a huge relief, therefore, when partway through the show I spotted one of the few empty seats in the balcony section, and gratefully slid into it. In any case Vicar Street was a wonderful venue in which to see this group; the downstairs, cabaret-style seating was remarkably intimate for a hall of this size, and the capacity audience was warm, involved and appreciative throughout.
The music of Lankum seems to exist in a strange, haunted netherworld. Soaked in rain, soil and blood, the songs are described in long, draining arcs of drone accordion, harmonium and violin, with touches of acoustic guitar framing the group’s stunning harmony vocals. Whether the group’s own compositions or arrangements of traditional material, the songs reach far back into history, giving voice to the oppressed and marginalized. Originals like “The Granite Gaze” and “Hunting the Wren” are shrouded in unbearable tragedy and loss, a grim reckoning of Irish poverty and establishment abuse. Although there are traces of both Joyce and early Beckett in the group’s bleakly evocative texts, it seems to me that their closest literary antecedent is WB Yeats, whose austere myth-making echoes down through the years to verses like “And it’s a standing ovation for the shadow of a stone/As we dig into the soil beneath our homes/The future’s further day-by-day as our fathers turn away/And leave us clinging to a mother who eats her own.”
The group’s selection of traditional songs is equally telling. The last time I heard the great pan-European protest anthem “Peat Bog Soldiers” it was being belted out by the English folk rock group Home Service, the song’s grinding repetitions animated by rich flourishes of brass, saxophone and electric guitar. In the hands of Lankum the song is transformed into an anguished a capella lamentation, its chill imagery seeping into the bones to devastating effect. Elsewhere the group deliver their version of “Rocky Road to Dublin”, the eventful tale of a traveller on his way from Ireland to Liverpool, its single drone accompaniment ratcheting up the tension and violence that lurk within the song. In the world Lankum inhabit, such tension is never far away.