You don’t see a pair of Orange full stack amps at many trad gigs. But at Vicar Street tonight, they’re there throughout The Mary Wallopers’ madly parodic take on Irish folk (read our PlecPicks 2020 feature on the folk trio here). They’re there throughout Hugh Cooney’s psychotic seanchai act, the amp heads glowing as the stage is pitched into darkness. And when Lankum finally take their seats and start slowly into The Wild Rover, they begin to emit a deep rumble, as though the earth were moving under us.
These days, The Wild Rover is a stag night drinking song, a soundtrack for the worst Temple Bar tourist dross. There’s nothing of that in Lankum’s version. Above that rumble from the amps hangs Radie Peat’s voice, vibratoless and clear as a bell. Cormac Dermody’s on fiddle, but the noise he’s making is like John Cale’s on Heroin. The two Lynch brothers join in desolate harmonies that slowly build tension against Dermody’s fiddle drones. And then, after nearly four minutes, there’s a sudden drop into a slow descending sequence that draws gasps and spontaneous cheers from the crowd. Each change in harmony feels like the shifting of tectonic plates. This is The Wild Rover not as shallow paddwhackery, but as an anthem of the rootless and the dispossessed.
Right now, only The Gloaming can match Lankum for the way they’re reimagined Irish folk music. But where the Gloaming emphasise the music’s virtuosity and grace, Lankum have gone the other way, stripping away the ornamentation and adding a low end rumble that betrays the Lynch brothers’ background in extreme metal. For all the way Dermody skips through the melodies of Bear Creek, for all the way Peat manages simultaneously to play concertina while pumping the bellows of her harmonium with her feet – for all that, there’s precious little virtuosity on display tonight.
What is there is a sense of the epic nature of the music, a sense of how each of these tunes – even Lankum’s own compositions – are informed by hundreds of years of history and hurt. For the most part the music is drawn from their most recent album, and while it’s dark stuff, there’s a monumental grandeur to it. The harmonies on Hunting The Wren are hauled from minor keys into a major key melody like an anchor being dragged. Katie Cruel is a ballad for the inferno.
For all that, it’s clear Lankum are enjoying themselves. Ian Lynch gets cheerier and more talkative as the crowd’s reaction gets more rapturous. Peat jokes about loving the gloom of the songs. And the band are wide-eyed as Spider Stacy joins them for the last song of the night, The Pride Of Petravore.
The Pride Of Petravore is a charming piece of Victorian faux-folk, and most versions of it are appropriately amiable – and inane. Lankum’s rendition, on the other hand, sounds like the apocalypse was relocated to the Doolin festival and the band was asked to supply the soundtrack. Against a background of bowed guitar from Daragh Lynch and heaving drones from Peat and Dermody, the sounds of Stacy’s and Ian Lynch’s tin whistles appear and disappear like spirits at a seance. There are no words, just ghosts of melodies struggling through a dense wall of dissonance; it’s like the soul of the tradition calling from another world.
Although the crowd rises for a standing ovation, we’re not done yet. Lankum are back on to play Cold Old Fire and The Old Man Came Over The Sea from their 2014 debut. Both show just how much the band has developed in the last five years. The vocal harmonies are the same, as is Dermody’s plucked fiddle on The Old Man. But what Lankum have since mastered is the art of the slow build, a careful marshalling of dynamics and harmony that adds weight to each song as it progresses until it feels colossal.
A second standing ovation, and they’re done. Lankum’s current album – ‘The Livelong Day’ – has been universally acclaimed. But tonight they outdid it, with music that has the heart and the historical sense to hold its own with the vanguard of any other genre.