The Mercury-nominated four-piece play every song as if they’re fighting with it, gasping for air before verses
By Katie Hawthorne
A menacing rumble fills the Queen’s Hall. Four empty chairs line the front of the stage, crowded by instruments: fiddles, guitars, hand organs, pipes, pedals, a harmonium. Slowly, the rumble builds into a fidgety clatter, as if a ghostly orchestra is preparing to play, and Lankum walk on stage, their first notes bleeding into the din.
Such eerie theatre is a fitting introduction to the Dublin folk band, who turn traditional songs into fresh horrors and write stormy, gothic elegies to modern life which already feel centuries old. Their latest album, the Mercury prize-nominated False Lankum, is bound together by similarly haunted atmospherics, and yet it still feels a surprise when the band – Radie Peat, Cormac Mac Diarmada and brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch – pull their first song proper out of this mist.
They have a ferocious physicality to their musicianship, and although Daragh describes new (old) song The New York Trader as a “workout, every time”, just moments later he is hunched over his guitar with a violin bow, sawing as if cutting a thick rope. The Rocky Road to Dublin is sung with such intensity that the band collectively gasps for air before each verse, both meditative and ominous. The weather worsens further for The Pride of Petravore: pipes roar and Mac Diarmada’s fiddle turns into a horrifying groan.
Then, as if the evening has been breezy entertainment until now, Peat offers a blunt warning: “We wrote this one during level-five lockdown. Probably why it’s so intense.” Go Dig My Grave is the showstopper of False Lankum, a bone-crunchingly heavy ballad about love and death. Peat’s astonishing voice cuts through the dark, and the song builds around her: four-piece harmonies, guitar strummed like a funeral march, and a doom-laden siren with the circular swing of a lighthouse’s beam.
“We always sing, even when we’re losing,” goes their first single Cold Old Fire. This mix of grief and joy is why some songs live so long, and to close the night Lankum offers the latter: a rowdy version of Bear Creek has the audience whooping and stamping in cleansing release.