An immersive experience may not have been intended. However, when they were taken on a winding journey through new-meets-old parts of Southwark Cathedral’s entrance corridors – past excavated remnants of coffins, city walls and a Roman road, as well as several dead ends – concertgoers got a sense of overcrowding, tedium and bewilderment. That’s likely what huddled pilgrims experienced as they boarded The Mayflower in the Rotherhithe area of Southwark 400 years ago.
In the present, it was every man and women for themselves when they finally reached the cathedral proper. Even though the transepts were opened up in addition to the expansive nave, empty seats were soon hard to find as 600 people piled in for a musical journey.
The gravity of the imposing setting was matched by Paul McGann’s booming voice-over sharing historical facts from each side of the Atlantic. The beautiful light show really added to the effect as strong colours danced between columns and over arches. Meanwhile, the musicians played in front of a projection of maps, woodcuts, and paintings.
Within all this it was hard to discern that the four musicians were meant to take centre stage, much less one in particular; Seth Lakeman’s fellow instrumentalists were just as prominent. Alex Hart added key vocals and, at times, all four sang together as one.
The sound of military drums, a bouzoukia, and all manner of other string instruments reverberated alongside Lakeman’s trademark fiddle. The style of song was period appropriate too, with shanties galore.
We learned why and how 102 men, women and children chose to pile on to an old ship too late in the year for fair weather. The pace picked up as the voyage traveled stormy waves and the ship threatened to founder. With the cathedral’s acoustics at play, the reverberations of the double bass was particularly visceral.
Meanwhile, an old, blind Native American woman who had dreamed of advancing settlers as a girl had that same dream again and predicted that it would soon come to pass.
With scarcely a breath to distinguish the two spoken narratives, a new model of democracy was developed for ‘the New World.’ The Mayflower Compact was agreed to negotiate disputes between the crew and the religious dissidents that they had conveyed.
The New World
No holds were barred on arrival. The settlers pillaged food stores and grave goods and, in return, shared disease (and you thought your neighbours were bad!)
It gets harder to sympathise with the pilgrims, but they weren’t having it easy by any stretch of the imagination; 49 have died and the 50th fell to his knees in desperation. This was dramatised through a gorgeous duet between Lakeman and Hart.
In the spring, the two cultures made a pragmatic treaty for survival. The Wampanoag shared knowledge of planting corn and beans, which we experienced through the sound of he Digging Sound, which was all-encompassing in the cathedral’s rarefied expanse.
“The darkness is over – we will flourish here”
The resultant instrumental was particularly striking, giving time to reflect on a troubled and troubling history. It’s been mythologised as the founding of a nation for some, while for others it represents invasion and devastation. Amongst it all, were acts of amity and cooperation.
“We’re going to cut The Mayflower free and send her off into history”
The Bold Night opened the second half. As well as familiarity for Lakeman fans, there was a continuity of tradition with the first set’s instrumentation. It paired with Freedom Fields as a duo of songs from Dartmouth.
The West Country traditional Setting of the Sun was a story of a young man who – and we’ve all been there – ::checks notes:: accidentally shot his lover when he mistook her for a swan. Oh, OK, maybe not then…
The Lady of the Sea got the crowd cheering and clapping due to its epic pacing. Nonetheless, the song was a poignant depiction of a shipwreck with “lovers lost and fathers never found.”
The Colliers (Hold Your Fire) was about the Gresford mining disaster. Eager to participate again, the audience chanted “many lost in the dark and dust as the colliers called out.”
It wasn’t all traditionals and historically inspired story songs. Lakeman also introduced a new song about recent “Dartmouth farmers moaning” about change.
The tunes kept coming, strong and discordant with a driving stompbox beat and fiddle galore. When the cathedral was plunged into darkness after a particularly dramatic solo – an incredibly powerful denouement – a man on the front row leapt up in exaltation.
Seth Lakeman’s album, A Pilgrim’s Tale, is out now.