Sam Lee and band put a contemporary spin on some Travellers' gems at St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford

  • Sam Lee
  • St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford

Sam Lee is a musical magpie, seeking out shiny treasures and taking them back to his nest.

But instead of hoarding these gems, he adds sheen and returns them, making the world a richer place.

Many of his songs are collected from gypsy and traveller communities; long periods being spent on the road seeking out caravan sites and sipping tea with matriarchs and patriarchs, learning the songs which have been passed down over generations but are now in danger of dying out.

And it was these gentle songs of love, life, death, and more love that he brought to St John the Evangelist Church on Friday.

One might be forgiven for thinking an hour-and-a-half of old folk songs could be heavy going. Not a bit of it though. While the songs are ancient, Lee breathes new life into them. His crystalline voice lends emotional depth and candour, while the instrumentation — provided by him and his band — adds dimension and energy.

Lee’s introductions, complete with often amusing accounts of where, and from whom, the song was found and what they mean — give each piece a context which adds to our enjoyment. They also serve to make us co-conspirators in these deeply personal tales, many of which feature on his Mercury-nominated album Ground of its Own.

The imaginative instrumentation gives each song space to breathe. Often this starts minimally, with just Sam’s voice backed by Francesca Terberg’s gently bowed cello, Alice Barron’s fiddle, or a single chord from his own squeezebox, with more instruments added gradually. The result, in this ecclesiastical setting, is a nave-filling wall of sound which stirs yet never overpowers Lee’s plaintive voice. Ultimate respect is afforded to the song and nothing detracts from the lyrics.

At times the music has an Asian, Balkan or African flavour — enlivened by Jew’s harp, zither, brass, tribal percussion and, best of all, the striking Barron, whose beautiful violin soars and weaves along with Lee’s voice.

The band’s engagingly contemporary delivery, and experimental approach to percussion add not just shine, but edge and danger to songs which might sound twee and bucolic in the hands of a more traditional outfit.

“I always like playing here,” Lee told us. “I always get the feeling it’s a discerning audience.”

He was right. There was palpable respect, with the audience hanging on every note and phrase.

Songs cover such disparate subjects as travelling and nightingales, but most return to one thing: love. A particular highlight is The Ballad of George Collins — Lee’s sharp vocal backed by a gently strummed mandolin, which builds into a Balkan reel. “It’s a song about sexually transmitted diseases,” smiles Lee. “It’s not a subject often mentioned in church!” But, he explains, that’s what so many of these songs are about: trials and affairs of the heart; and that’s why they sound so fresh. Yes they may be old, but it’s a timeless theme which, like all these engaging and heart-melting songs, spans the generations.

And Sam Lee deserves a medal for keeping them alive.