We traipse into the huge bauble-lit Main Hall to find Wildwood Kin already playing – and immediately feel we've missed something special. The Devonian family trio effectively deliver a study in sehnsucht, as no sooner have they finished a sublime Crosby Stills & Nash cover than drummer Meghan has to rush offstage. One couldn't tell she was ill from her third of the eerily perfect harmony (looking away from the stage, the Kin's sound is indistinguishable from a recording). Fortunately, as they've collaborated with main act Seth Lakeman for his new record, he calls upon the remaining two-thirds for most of the night and their spell remains unbroken. Whispering Bob Harris rates them, and he's heard nearly all the music in the world.
Lakeman and band move onto the stage, each member swapping instruments between almost all songs. The main guy's virtuosity with a fiddle is renowned, but he seems no less comfortable with mandolin, tenor guitar… I'm sure if you stretched some catgut or steel around a box, he'd be able to make it sing. The ensemble's kick into prime-number-time signatures of Fairport Convention is a bit of a feint, as the act most often recalled tonight is Led Zeppelin. Don't worry, there's no 'Stairway': as Led Zep once pulled from and transfigured elements of the blues tradition, this powerful line-up draws on folk and electrifies it wonderfully. Lakeman also sounds invigorated - on record his vocal can sound too clean for the drama of his material, but he's ageing expertly, going for it tonight and sports a Jeff Buckley-ish vibrato in the high register.
As at Dylan's 'Judas' gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall though, a plug-pulling protestor might focus on the fact that behind this full-tilt band, lyrics verge on the inaudible. In an impact-based medium like rock this is fine; but when narratives are the lifeblood of a music, such wattage and such a vaulted venue leave the lyrical flow a little masked and harder to follow. But it seems that the gist of his ancient tales is that a lot of people died at sea, and that unrequited love isn't a recent phenomenon.
There's a mesmerising O Brother-ish mid-set sequence with the Wildwoods, and my critical faculties are disabled by the perfection of their harmonies - check 'Anna Lee' and feel the old-timey magnetism. Here, the AV set-up redeems itself entirely, as the clarity and warmth of each voice is transmitted to the back of the hall. Often it's the synchronised swoops and sudden hushes of Seth + Wildwood's dynamics that impress.
The (nearly-)title track of new album Ballads of the Broken Few sounds like it could've been knocking about for 40 years or more, but turns out to be an original. Indeed, the bluesy and American roots flavour of our new material adds a powerful string to Lakeman's eclectic bow - another track, 'Innocent Child', boils down to a prayer for his youngest, and is utterly electrified by the forceful harmonies (the kind of potent gospel texture that once made its way into '20th Century Boy', 'Spirit in the Sky' etc).
Knowing better than to ditch his older songs and styles, Lakeman later institutes a 'dance area' at the side of the hall to encourage a few crews to politely hoedown. The ante is further upped with 'Kitty Jay', a classic from his Mercury-nominated sophomore record, its obsessively pitying chords and refrain becoming shamanic then manic by the frenzied close. The drummer joined just when we thought the tempo couldn't be raised any further... And the fiddler's bowstrings are frayed, and everybody in sight is on their feet, decreasing in politeness and increasing in fervour, like the medium is enough of a message to be getting down to.