You may not know the name Ben Nicholls. But if you’re at all engaged in the folk world, you’ve probably heard him. For many a year he’s been the go-to double bassist for all things folk, laying down lines for the likes of Seth Lakeman, Fay Hield, and Jon Boden. But for his own project, Kings of the South Sea, Nicholls tried something a little different. Teamed with drummer Evan Jenkins and veteran guitarist Richard Warren, they take traditional nautical shanties and give them a vicious electrified makeover. After a self-titled debut dwelling on the Pacific whaling trade, their upcoming second release will focus on John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition of 1845. Though ‘Franklin’ isn’t due out until 2018, the band premiered the album in its entirely in the hallowed halls of Cecil Sharp House on October 4th. A fittingly reverent venue to weave this portrait of a doomed voyage.
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It was clear from the kick-off that, despite the three years since their first record and the change of topic, KOTSS are the same rollicking nautical powerhouse they were before. Warren’s innovative salt-encrusted guitar-work is still the wind in the band’s sails, roaring like a hungry ocean and chiming like chains in a squall. Teamed with Jenkins’ percussion, swinging like a ship’s boom between metallic clanking and snow-fall brushwork, and Nicholl’s bosun baritone rolling over like a foghorn, theirs was a neatly crafted soundscape fit for the North Canadian wastes. The only major change-up was in instrumentation. Confined mostly to the sailor’s concertina for their debut, Nicholls leapt between guitars, banjos, and organs this time round like an overworked longshoreman. He took on the role of lecturer too, putting each of the ten tracks in context. Telling the tales of their birth, and tracing their origins to 19th century page-turners with names like the North Georgia Gazette or the Rhode Island Temperance Pledge.
As you’d expect from a collection of songs from the bitter Canadian north, much of the performance was given over to downbeat dirges. The morose ‘Death of a Gull’ set the tone early, followed by the aptly named rallying cry ‘Song of the Defeat’. But, ever the jesting sea-dogs, there was a fair wind of humour in the mix too. The trio’s interpretation of 1851’s ‘Song of the Sled’ saw Nicholls come over all Jimmy Buffet whilst Warren settled in to warm guitar ebbs. Something Nicholls dubbed ‘Hawaiian Arctic’. Then, in perhaps the most striking performance of the night, KOTSS gave their own gravelly rendition of schoolyard favourite ‘Alouette’ in the original French-Canadian trapper context of de-feathering an irritating bird, and sung with the utmost mountain-man sincerity. Said sincerity reached a dizzying righteous climax right after, with a rousing concertina-led rendition of the 1821 missionary hymn ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’. In the words of Nicholls’ himself, it was pretty confident stuff.
The final throes of the showcase saw lead single ‘Lady Franklin’ rear its grizzled head. One of the classic Franklin ballads given an ironclad rollicking guitar riff, it swung along like a frigate swaying drunken in the wave-swells. Then finally, to bring it all into port with something more familiar, Kings of the South Seas played ‘The Wild Wild Wanderer’, a 19th century Arctic cousin to what would one day become Elvis Presley’s ‘Old Shep’. Finally, with no Franklin tunes left to play, KOTSS settled for a suitably grog-swilling encore with the previous album’s ‘Eight Bells’.
In many ways, watching Kings of the South Sea in a comfortable, slightly-warm room in North London doesn’t do them justice. By rights they ought to be playing amid the heaves and creeks of a wave-worn galleon, battling the wind for dominance. But credit to them, even in the most pleasant of venues, Kings of the South Seas can conjure an atmosphere of doom. Richly researched, reverent, and rolling, they toe the line expertly between preservation and reinvention. The result is something starkly original in the (admittedly niche) world of nautical folk, but also something that, one hopes, Lady Franklin herself would have been proud of.