Lauren South at Kenilworth Arts FestivalReview
I'm delighted to be posting my first live review of 2024 so early in the year & indeed it's my first for quite some time: too long.
Fortunately, if I've not caught too much live music recently, what I have seen has been of the highest quality & this trend has been reinforced & a very high benchmark set for the year by last evening's (sold out) concert by Lauren South at Kenilworth's Tree House Bookshop as part of Kenilworth Arts Festival: credit to Ellie Gowers for her role in organising this and so many other great events.
A "solo" gig ahead of full band performances to launch her debut album ‘Tiny Boat' (featuring Ellie, John Parker, Keith Donnelly & Ben Haines), nevertheless Keith (her partner too in Donnelly and South) was in attendance & popped up from time to time to add additional textures with his guitar & harmonies.
She therefore stressed that rather than a set based on the album, she valued the chance to play some favourite traditional songs: not that this excluded originals as in the event we heard the vast majority of ‘Tiny Boat' plus several as yet unreleased originals.
In fact she opened with a tune about winter nights so new (a product of the last week) that it doesn't yet have a name. This rather encapsulates the flavour of the event: one showcasing Lauren's ever increasing self-belief: few artists would choose to start in that fashion.
Another piece of evidence is her inclusion of a new original which, although first conceived at Whitby Folk Festival in the summer, was unfinished and completed more or less as an improvisation at a wedding gig: demonstrating that her instincts can be on a par with her most careful honing of songs.
Switching between fiddle, tenor guitar, shruti box & a cappella, we got to experience the range of her talents and the variety of sounds she can conjure up for us. A renowned violinist & singer, it must be emphasised the comparatively short period of time she's been playing let alone composing on the other instruments.
I admired the range of techniques she has mastered on guitar and she uses the shruti box in so many different ways. Starting with using it (via a pedal) in tandem with her fiddle, she then used it much like others use keyboards: albeit with its distinctive drone. Several times it reminded me of a harmonium but the most spectacular use was on a version of "Bonny At Morn": Lauren referred to hearing the version by Kathryn Tickell and her use of the box here was uncannily like the pipes Kathryn is famous for.
Of the traditional songs played, the one which stood out in many ways was "She Moves Through The Fair": which lends a line to Lauren's own "One Star Awake" which preceded it in her set. This is such a standard that artists either give it a miss or try and stamp their own personality on it: usually by trying to emulate prior versions by great singers. This inevitably leads to much showboating which is deeply irritating at times. Lauren however takes it in her own, unostentatious direction with zero showing off: a subdued, gentle version which comes across as deeply personal.
This is the key to understanding Lauren, her music & the effect which it has on people. Generally, her own songs have a personal heart or connection: either from conception or as they develop (for example "The Mermaid and the Swimming Lad"). Lauren doesn't write about things unless they touch her deeply so the outcome is a body of work of great emotional depth: including the instrumentals to which this also applies. Her father, daughters and neighbour all feature, as do her predilections for nature, woods, the sea and the skies. Her choice of non-originals seems predicated upon the same principles.
The corollary to this is that however excellent her recorded versions are, you get that much more from her songs hearing them at close quarters in an intimate setting such as last evening: you become immersed in her world. Which is delightful, but creates a tension for me: I wish success for her and consequent gigs in bigger venues, but that effect would be reduced in them. So I urge you all to go & hear her play in small venues while she is still playing them. You can then be part of the close artist/audience connection which I witnessed yesterday.
There are a few words I avoid in writing reviews. Some, like "ultimate" and "amazing" have been so badly used and overused by others that you'll never find them in my pieces. Others, such as "magical" and "awesome" are also abused by too many others that I use them very sparingly. However since I felt that "magical" was sufficiently true to use of Lauren & her music & used it and since she has copied the quote onto her website, I think it's perfectly permissible to apply to my experiences last evening.
Do check Lauren's website & social media for her upcoming gigs: the next "Hot Music Live Presents" artist to play at Kenilworth Arts Festival is Wes Finch, also at the Tree House Bookshop on 16th February tickets via: https://www.treehousebookshop.co.uk/livemusic/2024/02/16/wes-finch-live-at-the-tree-house-bookshop)