September 23, 2020
The concert film that Irish singer Cara Dillon and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman debuted online on Aug. 13 represented more than the culmination of a project. It was catharsis.
Like many, Dillon and Lakeman have endured frustrations and setbacks resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown: in their case, having to stop work on a new album and drop plans for a tour of the US — including a possible long-awaited return to the Boston area.
But the pandemic presented more compelling concerns for the couple as well, like the safety of their three children and the health risks for Dillon herself, who has Type 1 diabetes.
So, Dillon, Lakeman, and their kids hunkered down in their home, located in Frome, Somerset, UK, and largely put music aside. This is no easy thing to do when, as a duo, you’ve put out seven albums – although they’re credited to Dillon, Lakeman has played an integral part as accompanist (on guitar and piano), arranger, and producer – and, in Dillon’s case, received numerous honors and award nominations from BBC Radio 2 and others.
Human nature being what it is, though, the couple could not long withstand the itch to create, and when offered the use of Cooper Hall – a performance and exhibition venue located on the grounds of an old manor in Frome where the pair recorded their 2017 album “Wanderer” – they jumped at the chance to recreate a concert event. The result is “Live at Cooper Hall,” a 72-minute film featuring 14 songs culled from two decades of the Dillon-Lakeman partnership. The film can be accessed via Dillon’s website, caradillon.uk.co, for free; viewers have the option to make a donation.
Interviewed the day after the film was made available via YouTube and Facebook, Dillon and Lakeman were heartened at the response: no fewer than 3,000 viewers for the premiere from start to finish, more than 150,000 viewings on Facebook alone in less than 24 hours from almost 90 countries. But metrics couldn’t measure the elation the two felt at the opportunity to perform, even if the audience consisted of several camera operators and a sound crew. The experience was in many ways an affirmation of the musical life Dillon and Lakeman chose to lead — a life with challenges, to be sure, but one that has treated them quite well.
“It was such a pleasure to do a concert, to be immersed in the music and let yourself get lost in the moment,” said Dillon, a Co. Derry native who began singing at age 10 and at 14 was an All-Ireland champion. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true: I had taken it so for granted. I realize how important that is now.
“As much as we’ve missed performing, we know people miss being able to get out and enjoy live music,” she added. “So we wanted to capture the whole experience of our duo concerts – not just the music, but the atmosphere, the sound of the room, the staging and lighting. You just can’t do that at home.”
Live on film
During the pandemic, many musicians have turned to social media as a performance and creative outlet, whether the livestream-from-my-living-room format with one stationary camera, or artistically inclined videos of high ambition and production quality. With “Live at Cooper Hall,” Dillon and Lakeman opted for a sensible middle route. The film is set up as a concert in real time, complete with Dillon providing stage patter between songs while Lakeman switches instruments. But the multiple cameras serve to further engage the viewer, zeroing in on Dillon to accentuate the intensity or quietude of a particular passage, and on Lakeman’s hands as they flit across the piano keys or pound out a robust rhythm on guitar.
“What we didn’t want was to sanitize that strange awkwardness and nervousness you sometimes feel at a gig, where it seems like the audience is terrified to cough or sneeze or shuffle in their seats,” said Lakeman, who grew up in Devon, UK, and while a teenager began playing gigs with brothers Seth and Sean, leading to the formation of pioneering folk-rock band Equation – which Dillon eventually joined. “We feed off that; those have been some of our best gigs, in fact. So when we recorded the concert [in July], we played first song to last song in one go, about an hour and 25 minutes – and it was pin-drop quiet.”
Dillon has long championed the song tradition of Northern Ireland, Derry in particular, and “Live from Cooper Hall” reflects this, with selections like “Streets of Derry,” “Blackwater Side,” “Banks of the Foyle” and “Faughan Side.” Setting the tone for the film right at the start is “I Am a Youth That Is Inclined to Ramble,” published in Sam Henry’s foundational collection of Northern Irish traditional songs and ballads and famously arranged and popularized by Paul Brady. An immigrant’s farewell to his lover, “Youth” has a melody that soars stratospherically mid-verse, lyrics equally passionate and gracious, and Dillon imbues it with a perfect gradation of drama, quietly supported by the pensive, steady presence of Lakeman’s piano.
“That is such a powerful song – it really does take you places,” said Dillon. “I see the whole story in my head so clearly. And it has a whole new meaning to me now, because I haven’t been able to go home, to Derry, for six months. So when I was singing it, and some of the other songs from Derry, I was getting quite emotional: I used to sing it and think, ‘Well, I’ll be going to Derry in a few weeks,’ but now you get the idea of how it feels to not be able to go back home.”
Dillon gives a reflective, spacious feel to “Faughan Side,” with Lakeman’s light, delicate guitar backing; it’s another farewell song, but more low-key and nostalgic. “I used to hear this song back in my hometown of Dungiven from a couple, Ann and Francie Brolly – Francie died in February – so it has a very personal association for me,” she said.
Songs about leaving, and longing for home, are a major component of Dillon’s repertoire – and are complemented by Lakeman’s empathic piano style – so no surprise they would be featured in this context. But the duo go in for up-tempo, upbeat stuff, too, as Dillon shows her adeptness at singing in Gaelic with “Éirigh Suas a Stóirín (Rise Up My Darling)” and at the end of the song, some considerable skill on whistle, as she plays the slide “Dinny Delaney’s” to Lakeman’s pulsating guitar.
Their songwriting abilities come to the fore with their bracing joint composition “Bold Jamie” (Lakeman’s syncopated, muted strokes on guitar ratchet up the story’s suspense), and Dillon’s tender “The Leaving Song,” inspired by her mother’s recollections of “loving wakes” – send-offs for friends or family members bound for faraway places from which they were unlikely to return.
In an age where immigration has become a politically charged subject, Dillon said, it can be easy to lose sight of how wrenching the act of uprooting and leaving one’s home can be, and the impact on those left behind. “The Leaving Song” is an attempt to convey this, drawing on the vast subset of immigration songs to be found in the Irish tradition – and traditions around the world.
“The story never changes, does it?” she said. “Human nature never changes. We’re always going to want to sing songs about home, immigration, unrequited love – all those things apply to every generation.”
The set list for “Live from Cooper Hall” included songs that have been especially popular with their audiences, and “The Parting Glass” – which closes out the film – was one in particular. “We just knew a lot of people would want to hear that one,” said Dillon. “It seemed like the perfect way to end the show.”
Music “a great teacher”
Dillon and Lakeman have sought to maintain a sense of perspective in the pandemic age. Her vulnerability due to diabetes is a concerning matter, but they are grateful for the support and understanding they’ve received from their children’s schools. They were able to afford the investment in the film, but are keenly aware that many folk musicians – and, for that matter, many audience members – are enduring considerable hardships, hence the couple’s decision to make “Live from Cooper Hall” free.
“I think folk music, more so than most any music genre, has such a sense of community about it,” said Lakeman. “On the one hand, that’s been reassuring, but also troubling. Covid pulled the rug out from underneath everything and people didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t just get together and sort it out, because nobody could get together. And the heart and soul of our folk music is all about getting together, being at a folk club, a gig, a festival, and sorting out problems. So we’re faced with these extraordinary obstacles.”
“We were fortunate, because the people at Cooper Hall were so generous and said, ‘This hall needs to be used. This piano needs to be played. Go for it,’” said Dillon. “But how many other musicians are going to be as lucky?”
In an alternate universe where the coronavirus didn’t exist, Dillon and Lakeman might have just finished up an extensive American tour, something they had long envisioned but had been difficult to accomplish with young kids.
“Before the lockdown, we were talking about traveling in the States again – get some concerts scheduled for a whole summer, bring the kids with us, hire an RV and just go for it,” said Dillon. “The kids are at an age now where they’re good to travel with, they still like being with us, so that would have been perfect.”
This tour would almost certainly have included a stop in the Boston area, where they performed in 2008 at the ICONS Festival (which ran for a couple of years at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton) and later that same year as part of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn”; a year or two later, they returned for a gig at Club Passim in Harvard Square.
And, in this alternate universe, Dillon and Lakeman might have had a new album in progress, one significantly different than the rest in their portfolio. They’ve been writing their own material for some years, and have long had an interest in going beyond traditional and folk/acoustic music. This, according to Lakeman, was to be the focus of their envisioned project.
“We’ve always recorded little melodies or snippets here and there that didn’t fit in anywhere else, and just held onto them,” he explained. “Last year, we began exploring them, did some experimenting and got a band together to flesh them out. By early this year, we had six tracks rehearsed, and it was just brilliant. We recorded some proper demos in a studio, which was quite an investment. And literally two days later, while I was editing some of the tracks, we decided we needed to take our kids out of school; this was two or three weeks before the UK went into lockdown.”
The project may have been shelved for now, but not forgotten. Every now and then, when the family goes out for a drive, the children ask to hear “the new stuff,” said Dillon. “They love it. I figure if two 13-year-olds and a nine-year-old think it’s good, there must be something there to work with. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get back to it at some point.”
Chiming in, Lakeman said, “We’ve never felt confined to doing any particular type of music,” pointing to the intense interest Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” album has attracted as an example of an artist working on his or her own terms. “We choose to play the music we do because it feels right to us, not because we feel like it’s expected of us.”
“If you’re serious about music, you have to be open-minded and see what comes next,” Dillon said. “Music is a great teacher and it will take you on wonderful journeys. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. This new, self-penned stuff might take us on a whole other turn, and it could be very exciting.”