By Mike Dunphy
“What will we do when we have no money?” asks the opening track of Lankum’s 2017 breakthrough album, Between the Earth and Sky—called “brilliant, raw, detonating folk” by The Guardian newspaper. The question sets the edge for the collection of tracks that tells tales of poverty and pain, fight fascists and militarism, and pine for lost love. Indeed, the last words of the album, in the song “Willow Sky,” depict a hanging. “And now it’s time to leave you all / It’s time to say my goodbye / For they are going to stretch me up / Between the Earth and sky.”
While tragedy may fill the songs of Lankum, great cheer has followed their career in the past few years, bringing enormous success in the United Kingdom and Ireland to the four members—brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Cormac MacDiarmada, and Radie Peat. That’s translated into appearances on the countries’ top stages, from the Royal Albert Hall in London to Vicar Street in Dublin, and TV shows such as Later…with Jools Holland. With the attention has also come a slew of awards including the 2018 BBC Radio Folk Awards for “Best Group” and “Best Original Song,” the RTÉ Radio 1 (the Irish broadcasting network) Folk Award for “Best Folk Group,” and “Best Folk Singer.”
This Saturday, January 12, Vermont is lucky to welcome “the most convincing band to come out of Ireland in years” to the stage of the Barre Opera House on their first official tour of the United States—and first experience of Vermont.
“I don’t really know anything at all about Vermont, to be honest,” says Ian Lynch, the group’s piper and co-founder. “I think I came across it mentioned in an H.P. Lovecraft story once or twice, and that would probably be the extent of my knowledge.” He was, however, well aware of master pipe maker and player, Benedict Koehler, who, along with his wife, Hilari Farrington, leads the weekly Irish sessions at Bagitos in Montpelier. “His work is held in very high regard amongst pipers.”
The show is the last of the short, six-date tour that also lands in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. After the huge stages and bright spotlights of back home, playing in smaller places to people who may not know the band or music is a welcome exercise in humility for Lynch. “It’s definitely important to put things into perspective and definitely keep a sense of humility about these things,” Lynch reflects. “To go back to places like this and play in smaller venues where people don’t really know who we are or not necessarily care—stops your head getting too big, really.”
It’s also reminiscent of the majority of their career, which only saw success relatively recently. “For years and years we would play anywhere that would have us; we played in dive bars; we played in squats, anywhere at all. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve started to play these bigger venues, like the Royal Albert Hall.”
As for presenting themselves to an American audience, Lynch doesn’t give it much thought. “As far as coming to the States now, it’s a bit of a blank slate. I suppose we’ll be going about what we reckon is a true representation of all the different aspects of our music, to give people a taste of all the different elements of what we do.” It also gives the band a free space to work out new material. “There’s no better way to get material as tight as just playing it on tour.”
Many of those elements come with a bite, not just in the song selection and lyrics, but voice and instrumentation. Peat’s husky vocals carry the weight of Johnny Cash while riding on sparse, gently rolling waves of Uilleann pipes, concertina, accordion, fiddle, guitar, viola, harmonium, and tin whistle—conjuring images and sensations of wistful, gray Irish seascapes, or the quiet, whiskey-blushed afterhours of a Dublin night. “It’s probably not a conscious decision,” Lynch explains, “but the songs we do arranging, the traditional songs, they do tend more to the darker side of things.”
Some of that edge goes to the old field recordings of traveler singers that Lynch loves. “I think they would all have that edge as well. In the past, things sound to me a lot more rough and ready. That’s something you wouldn’t really hear so much in this genre of music these days; things a lot cleaner and a bit more polished.”
It was one of those old field recordings, “False Lankum,” about a child-murdering villain, that gave the band its name. “It’s really one of my favorite recordings that I’ve ever come across. It was made by a song collector here in Ireland named Tom Munnelly. He made a recording of a desperately impoverished man named John Reilly, who sang this 24‒25-verse ballad. It’s amazing because the song is almost completely cinematic, singing about these lords and ladies, betrayal, murder, and everything else. You can hear his kids messing about in the background, it’s just a very, very atmospheric recording. For us it just represents different things; we thought it worked well.”
While Lynch is extremely grateful—and even somewhat surprised—by the band’s immense success, he tries to keep his focus on the root impetus for the band. “We didn’t set out to do any of this. We were just four friends who got together and wanted to make music that we love. As far as I’m concerned, the other three people in the band are some of my favorite musicians in the world, and I just love spending time making music with them. I just want to carry on what we’re doing, which is making music that we like. That’s the bottom line.”
Lankum plays the Barre Opera House on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 7:30 pm. Tickets for Lankum are $26. Order online at barreoperahouse.org or call the Barre Opera House at (802) 476-8188. The Opera House is handicapped accessible and equipped for the hearing impaired.