Lau are an English/Scottish three-piece who are very much at the cutting edge of the British folk revival. Made up of Kris Drever (guitar and vocals), Martin Green (accordion, keyboards and the odd bit of electronica) and Aidan O’Rourke (fiddle) they have already garnered four Radio 2 Folk Awards for Best Band and are big favourites of the Guardian, Mojo and a host of music critics. Formed in 2004 and with four studio albums recorded to date (the current album Decade is a compilation to mark the 10th anniversary of their first release) there are also a number of remixes by various producers that offer different perspectives on their studio work.
If you turn up to see them live, expecting something along the lines of Mumford and Sons, you’re likely to be disappointed. Hopefully, however, you’d also be pleasantly surprised by their breadth and experimental approach – they are not afraid to step outside traditional folk restrictions and have collaborated with artists as diverse as Tinariwen and Aoife O’Donovan, with each band member pursuing their own roster of solo projects as well as curating their own annual peripatetic cultural festival (Lau-Land).
Tonight they are in the intimate surroundings of The Black Box as part of the Out To Lunch festival, another interesting and innovative programming choice by CQAF and another sold out performance. The first half is certainly intimate – the three musicians are seated around a single upright microphone, with most of the stage covered by black drapes. For such a simple set-up, the sound is fantastic – rich warm and with surprising depth. Not one instrument or voice overpowers any of the others.
On the first set of instrumentals, the fiddle takes the lead for the first two tunes, with the accordion taking over for the final song. Martin Green takes the time to tell the audience of some great nights that he has had in the Black Box throughout the years and gently scolds O’Rourke for not having been at any of them. The music during the first half of the show ranges from light and airy to solemn and serious; the crowd are hushed and attentive but the applause between songs is loud and enthusiastic.
There is more than one song about the islands of Scotland in the set, with Orkney and Mull both getting mentions. There’s also a lovely cover of Lal Waterson’s ‘Midnight Feast’, with Drever conjuring up a mix of Spanish and blues guitar.
The one surprise for me in the evening is that, for probably the first time in my life I am about to write the words “great accordion player.” And that is exactly what Martin Green is, coaxing sounds from his instrument that range from electronica and piano to what reminded me of Tom Waits playing his pump organ.
After a short break, the band return to a very different stage. With the drapes removed there is a rack of guitars and something that looks like what would happen if a synthesizer and a Dalek produced a love child and you tried to cram it into a suitcase. This, as we were later informed, was ‘Morag’, complete with keyboards, switches, pedals and her own rainbow flag. Green uses Morag to produce loops, samples and electronic effects while still playing the accordion. Early on in the second half of the show, the track ‘Torsa’ stands out with Drever making his guitar ring in a way that sounded like Mark Knoffler on his best days. ‘Throwing Pennies‘ has a solid beat and rhythm and Drever’s vocals are enthralling.
O’Rourke then introduces a tune that he had written on the way to the Isle of Mull and explains his fanatical interest in the fluctuating populations of Scottish islands (4,800 souls on Mull apparently). This is a beautifully evocative piece, bringing to mind the sea, beaches and the wind.
‘Ghosts’ is frankly ghostly, full of melancholy and eerily atmospheric yet it ends up sounding almost anthemic as it nears the end. ‘Save the Bees’ features O’Rouke on fiddle, soaring from high to low registers underpinned by Drever’s rumbling guitar and it paints a vivid picture of urgency and flight. There are a few numbers that sound reminiscent of Jon Hopkins/King Creosote’s wonderful album Diamond Mine and even the odd tune that has a hint of ELO about it.
‘Far From Portland ‘ is a dark and jazz-influenced number and for the finale the trio gather again round a single microphone to play and sing ‘Freedom Come Aa Ye’, a song described by the band as “pretty bloody Scottish” but which is also a rousing hymn to internationalism that makes you want to get up out of your seat and belt out the chorus. Luckily they provided us with printed copies of the lyrics.
An eclectic, diverse and fascinating evening of music from a very tight and talented trio of musicians. The current album Decade is a nice entry into their work so far but there’s so much more to explore and enjoy. Another great night courtesy of Out to Lunch.