Although she describes herself and her band as “a bunch of London scruffs”, there’s nothing everyday about Lisa Knapp and her coterie. There’s an element of salt-of-the-earth folk singer about her, sure, but also something rather more otherworldly. Knapp delivers traditional opener The Blacksmith with a simmering intensity. Initially, she’s accompanied only Gerry Diver’s quiet banjo, but then percussionist Pete Flood subtly joins in, tickling his drums with his brushes. The song swells, with bass and dulcimer also chiming in, but the focus remains on Knapp, still and focused as she relates the story of the deceitful smith.
And that’s just the first song! What follows is that Knapp and co – Kate Arnold on dulcimer and bassist Fred Thomas make it five – play their considerable collection of instruments in a considerable number of ways to produce an dazzingly eclectic, frequently magical-sounding set. Refreshingly (excitingly, even), it’s not unusual for songs not to sound like their recorded versions.
Knapp has a particular interest in May Carols, even going so far as to record an EP of them in 2012 (a follow-up this year has been postponed, she tells us, because she’s undergoing the stress of moving house instead). Pleasant Month of May – learned from the relatively local Copper family – is propelled by an excitable pizzicato bass and fiddle line. Knapp’s delivery is full of the joys of the season, at one point tipping over into an excited shout. She switches to a harp for Hunt the Hare pt 1 – about “the merry month of May” – which ends in whispers, blurring into its second movement in a beautiful, dreamlike fashion. There are bursts of ice cream van music and birdsong, brilliantly and unobtrusively evoking the coming of the summer.
They might not be scruffs, but there’s a certain rough-and-ready element to the group’s playing. Diver saws meaningfully at his fiddle, switching to add the occasional heavy piano chord when necessary. Behind the kit, meanwhile, Flood has his work cut out cycling through his collection of chimes, blocks of wood, shells and what look like pebbles. It’s quite a different job to keeping time for the far noisier Bellowhead, and he’s excellent at finding the right texture for each song.
Knapp puts Shipping Song, from last year’s acclaimed Hidden Seam album, into context by simply mentioning her interest in place names. She sings the words so familiar from the shipping forecast – Fitzroy, Trafalgar, Forties – with palpable relish, playing with the words as if tasting them for the first time.
After an interval, the show recommences with a compelling solo performance of May murder ballad Lily White Hand, illustrating that for all its fragile quaver, Knapp’s voice has considerable depth and volume. Two Ravens – which she modestly chooses not to mention won the Radio 2 Folk Award for best original song – is enchanting. Stripped of Martin Carthy’s spiky guitar (indeed, any guitar), the song is softer and slower, but no less exotic-sounding.
Generally, however, the second half is somewhat louder than the first. Seagiver sees Flood start to thump the drums for the first time, which elicits an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Wild and Undaunted – a tale of robbery in London Town – has a stop-start swagger, with Knapp’s vocals soaring towards the conclusion. The momentum continues on the blurry, woozy Black Horse. Diver uses his box of electronic tricks to loop and sample Knapp’s voice, so it seems as if she’s harmonising with herself, before wondering off on a soaring vocal tangent. It’s thrilling to listen to, and there’s a delicious payoff when (almost) everything suddenly stops and we’re left with a solitary, haunting vocal line.
The night’s final song (Knapp has no truck with walking offstage and returning for an encore) is another solo piece, learned from Lizzie Higgins. “It’s a slightly magical song, this one,” says Knapp. “I suppose most songs are slightly magical, really”. The ones she sings most certainly are.