Fiddle player Sam Sweeney is no stranger to the stage. One of the most in-demand musicians on the folk scene, in recent years you may have seen him perform on stages of any shape and size. From Bellowhead’s storming sold-out set at the London Palladium with Bellowhead, to playing unplugged and in the round at a chapel with Leveret, Sam is nothing if not versatile.
Needless to say, the past 16 months have been distinctly lacking in such events. So now that venue doors are finally beginning to reopen, what’s it like getting back on stage?
“It’s pretty intense!” Sam tells us. “Musicians are like athletes, and we’re not match fit. Two years ago, walking on stage was as natural as walking into my own living room but walking back on stage last month felt rather alien. It’s like starting all over again.”
While the practical experience of a concert isn’t quite back to normal for audiences due to the safety measures still in place, Sam notes that the atmosphere of the live music experience is still very much there to be enjoyed.
“I think there is a mutual feeling among performers and audiences that we are all easing each other back into this gig malarkey. We are all delighted to be together, experiencing music again. The positive energy at the couple of gigs I’ve done so far has been electric.”
This year’s gigs are the first chance Sam has had to bring the music from his acclaimed album Unearth Repeat to the stage for a live audience. Having written and arranged all the material over two years ago, released it in March 2020 as the UK went into its first lockdown and rescheduled the tour no fewer than three times, Sam describes the experience of finally playing it live as “exhilarating”.
“We played it in London for the first time last month, and it was a genuinely moving experience. A lot of the audience were actually in tears at points. The band are so delighted to be able to bring the music to life and actually, I feel that having not ever gigged it, the music has evolved since the album’s release, in a very beautiful way. “
Even as restrictions are looking set to lift entirely in the coming weeks, ‘back to normal’ may still be a long way off for much of the music scene. Apologising in advance for a “soapbox rant”, Sam explains:
“The government have shafted the performing arts, possibly beyond repair. With huge sporting events allowed to happen, artists are still playing to 50% capacity crowds and in some cases, essentially paying to play. Most gigs only begin to make financial sense beyond 70% capacity. The Cultural Recovery Fund has found its way into the hands of venues, to keep their doors open and events happening, but that doesn’t translate to artists, agents and crew earning money.”
If tough times are still far from over, what can music fans do to support the artists they enjoy in the meantime?
“It’s really hard,” Sam tells us, “Everyone is feeling the pinch, and I am extremely grateful to my fans for supporting me and my band over the last fifteen months or so. Many musicians are struggling to stay afloat, many have left the industry and found other jobs, but our fans are keeping us going. Whether that be lovely messages of gratitude, subscribing to Patreon pages, watching live streams and donating money, it all means a huge amount.
“The message I would like to give music fans, more importantly than anything else, is to buy tickets. Even if a gig is six months away, buy tickets now if you can and feel safe to do so. Most gigs are, and will be for a long time, operating on a shoe string. If gigs sell tickets early on, it helps artists, venues and promoters more than anything else and if gigs get rescheduled, tickets remain valid, but the money is still in the system.
“So look which of your favourite artists are touring, buy tickets as soon as gigs go on sale and help spread the word! The road to recovery is going to be very long and very hard, and we all need to help each other if we want a touring scene like we had pre-COVID.”
Sam Sweeney and band perform at Exeter Phoenix on 20 July as a part of “English Folk Expo presents”, with both livestream and in-venue tickets available. He’s followed by Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman on 21 July, and Sound of the Sirens on 22 July.