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Lankum live in London: a truly special band combine tradition and innovation

At their biggest gig to date, the Mercury-nominated Dublin quartet twist old folk songs into new shapes via thunderous drones and restless experimentation.

5.0 rating

By Will Richards

Lankum (Picture: Steve Gullick)

Lankum play traditional music in brilliantly untraditional ways. The Dublin-based folk band’s recent fourth album, False Lankum, was nominated for the 2023 Mercury Prize and sees them spearheading a new wave of appreciation for centuries old folk music in popular culture.

To call the movement a revival would be inaccurate – this is a scene that has never stopped thriving underground – but it takes albums like False Lankum to act as a gateway for a new generation of fans to discover these sounds and stories. That’s not to call it overly palatable though; it just does it best.

To create their sound, Lankum – brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Cormac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat – take old folk songs (‘Go Dig My Grave’, first released in 1925; the well-travelled murderous tale ‘The New York Trader’) and put them through a blender of earth-shattering drones and blackened noise. Though these songs have existed for many years, they have never quite sounded like this before.

At the band’s biggest live show to date at London’s Roundhouse, they present this fascinating hybrid sound. Even when one member is keeping things traditional – often MacDiarmada playing a melodic fiddle line – Daragh will be next to him making a dissonant racket while bowing his acoustic guitar. In Peat, they also possess one of the great modern singers, and the rendition of False Lankum opener ‘Go Dig My Grave’ is truly spine-tingling.

Backed by extra members on trumpet, drums and piano, the quartet make an astonishing noise, surging from soft acoustic beginnings to something closer to doom metal. Everything is infused with an unrelenting intensity, whether it’s the eight-minute epic ‘On A Monday Morning’ (about “really, really filthy hangovers”) or ‘The New York Trader’, where Ian sings fervently about a shipmate murdering the captain of his ship before being consigned to leading an army of the dead.

To open the encore, the band perform their own track ‘Cold Old Fire’, a song they wrote when all unemployed in Dublin during the recession of the late 2000s. All their friends had moved abroad, but the quartet stayed put and “went out drinking every night” as Ian tells the crowd, playing traditional music in pubs to get free drinks and getting the idea to start Lankum in the process.

What has followed is a far cry from drunken trad pub sessions – this is music that pushes boundaries thrillingly – but that core idea still remains. As if to prove it, they then cover The Pogues’ ‘The Old Main Drag’, a song about when the late Shane MacGowan moved to London. It’s performed with reverence but also a desire to push it forwards into something new – the very thing that makes Lankum so special.