Listening to Sam Kelly’s debut album ‘The Lost Boys’ for the first time feels like being dropped from the sky into the very centre of a roaring, high energy gig. I foolishly first listened to this album whilst cycling through Oxford, and was almost sent careering into the bus lane. The sheer vibrancy and power of the music is fantastic – from the romping, reeling opening tune ‘Jolly Waggoners’ to the more sedate, reflective ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, each track weaves its own small world around the listener.
Sam Kelly himself is a rising star in the music world – this first album comes off the back of success after success, from being a live session guest on the Mark Radcliffe Show to taking large venues like the Cambridge Folk Festival by storm last year. ‘The Lost Boys’ has already garnered enthusiastic acclaim from many big names in the folk music world, from Seth Lakeman to Cara Dillon. So I knew to expect something impressive from this album – but I was still blown away by its accomplishment and finesse. After touring for three years with his band, the singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist seems to have found and carved out his own stylistic niche in the world of folk. This unique sound is an intoxicating blend of folk tradition with a hard, rocky edge. The track ‘Little Sadie’ is reminiscent of New Orleans R&B, full of riffing banjos and guitars, blasting out aggressively at you with Sam Kelly’s grim lyrics landing like a kick in the guts. This music does not pull any punches whatsoever – but this is the beauty of Sam Kelly. The band toys with different styles and approaches, shaping traditional folk songs into new, exotic shapes with their trademark stamp of skill and energy so that no two tracks are the same – each song seems like an artwork in its own right.
Like all the best folk music albums, the songs used by Sam Kelly originate from various places, bringing together a fascinating mix of stories and adventures and turning the listening experience into a form of eclectic musical storytelling. From the reworking of the 18th century hymn ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ to an American reworking of the haunting, sinister 19th century ‘Six Miners’ (a tune with variants all over the UK and the states), and covering a breadth of music that spans from songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (‘Jolly Waggoners’) to Sam Kelly’s own compositions (‘Spokes’), there’s something here for everyone.
But it’s not all about the songs – the sheer amount of music virtuosity on this album completely blew me away. From the grungy swamp-sound of ‘Little Sadie’, with banjo (Jamie Francis), double bass (Luke Drinkwater) and percussion (Evan Carson) stomping out a heavy beat that prompts not so much foot tapping as head banging, to the soaring fiddle accompaniment (Ciaran Algar) in ‘Spokes’ and the graceful swooping cello (Graham Coe) in ‘Eyes of Men’, there is enough here to keep anyone happy. Sam Kelly’s guitar is the perfect support for his voice – which can swing from soft and heart-wrenching to angry and turbulent from one song to another. Although each track contains lyrics, this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the album: indeed, the music enhances the stories, drawing the listener in and leaving them hanging on Sam’s every word. I found myself replaying song after song, listening first to the wash of the instruments and then again to focus in on the story. Sam Kelly’s music is definitely more-ish.
To pick just one song to examine is difficult: but one particular favourite track of mine, ‘Six Miners’, highlights the brilliance of Sam Kelly and his band. Like all the best dark, ominous tales, it contains grisly endings and haunting images: “Six miners went to the mountains cold/ But only one came back.” There’s even a hint of cannibalism- what more could you possibly want? The subtle banjo accompaniment gives the piece a bluegrass swing and places you firmly on the other side of the Atlantic, whilst the minor feel of the piece and the eerie vocal harmonies only fuel the sense of foreboding that build throughout the piece. I even found myself glancing over my shoulder once or twice (again, not a good thing to do on a bike). If that’s not the sign of a terrific murder ballad, I don’t know what is.
Overall, this album is an accomplished, impressive debut by a dazzling group of musicians. Even the albums cover artwork, a quirky line drawing of the band being pulled in a wagon, seems to epitomise the variety and the fun of the music. Packed full of romping songs and tunes to get you up and dancing, listening to the entirety of this album feels like an experience to remember. It’s clear that Sam Kelly and his band are going places- and going there fast.