Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Trembling Bells in Exeter

I went to see Trembling Bells on Sunday at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter. On arriving, I found out, through asking at the box office counter, that the starting time had been shifted to 9, although the schedule on the noticeboard still said 8. The notice also still located it in what is known as the Voodoo Lounge, an attempt to lend an air of exoticism to what seems like an old schoolroom upstairs (the building used to be part of the university). Having returned nearer the time, we found this to be completely empty, and obviously not set up for anything. Asking where they were in fact playing, I was told, in a manner which suggested I was a bit of an idiot, that it was, of course, on the main stage. Pardon me for not being tuned in to the psychic frequency on which such announcements were clearly being announced. The main hall was supposed to be housing the milling throng who’d come to see the guitar stylings of ‘blues-rock legend’ , Tommy Castro, but he was nowhere to be found. Not quite legendary enough, it would seem, or perhaps it was the result of the complete lack of any advertising (although volcanic ash may also have played its part, of course. The lackadaisical ‘yeah, whatever’ atmosphere of amateurishness which the Arts Centre exudes perhaps explains the poor turnout for this concert. Trembling Bells have, after all, received a great deal of good press, and have been championed by the likes of Joe Boyd, Paul Weller, and Stuart Maconie on his radio 6 programme The Freak Zone, and Exeter is an area in which music which has a folk element generally attracts a good crowd. The Sunday evening factor may also have played its part, but more people should have been here, particularly as it was such a great gig.

The atmosphere did indeed have something of a Sunday evening air, the weekend already packed away and people’s minds half focussed on Monday morning. This may have explained the general hushed quietude which gave the between song interludes a slight sense of awkwardness. You might not have been able to hear a pin drop, but you could certainly hear a harmonica being fitted into its holder with a preternaturally loud series of exaggerated clunks. Singer Lavinia Blackwall seemed diffident and apologetically awkward in her introductions, and was occasionally helped along by fellow vocalist Alex Neilson’s amusingly offhand comments from behind his drumkit (he refrained from providing his own rimshots). I liked his reference to a large, barren area of featureless scrubland north of Yorkshire – Scotland. He’s allowed to say this, since they all live just north of Glasgow and are therefore adopted natives.

The band is generally filed under the heading folk rock, which doesn’t necessarily do them any favours. It’s a collision of styles which has produced occasionally sublime but often cumbersome and timelocked music. They’re a disparate bunch, whose take on folk is informed by the divergent musical genres in which they’re versed. The fact that they’re approaching the music from the perspective of interested outsiders means that this is third or fourth generation music, with no interest in the preservation of any notional idea of the purity of its sources. The folk elements of the songs, most of which are written by Alex Neilson, provide a backdrop of English romanticism on which to project tales of love, loss and yearning, and which lends them a real sense of place and seasonal atmosphere. The lyrics are romantic in the poetic sense, full of an evident love of language (and with the odd literary reference thrown in, such as the Dylan Thomas referencing ‘rage against the dying of the light’ chorus to When I Was Young), with Neilson in particular clearly enjoying the sound of particular words, which he rolls his voice around with emphatically articulated relish. It could be said that the 70s rock elements in the music are in fact as traditionally English as the folk aspect, so completely have they become part of the universally shared subconscious soundtrack to the era.

Trembling Bells - Live at the Vortex, London from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.<

Lavinia Blackwall, a tall woman, comes from a background in early and medieval music, which she studied for an MA, and has a soaring, pure-toned voice which would be equally at home in the classical recital hall. She stood out front behind her keyboard, although she generally favoured a hollow-bodied electric guitar on which she played ragged rhythm chords. She also accompanied her singing on one song with a celeste, handily contained in its own pastel blue carrying case. Alex Neilson, a fairly small man, stood out front to sing with Lavinia on the first number before retreating to his drum kit, where he joined that small coterie of vocalist drummers in the company of Karen Carpenter and, perhaps more appropriately, Levon Helm of The Band. He comes from a free jazz improvising background, and his drumming progresses in loose, shifting patterns which gives the music a feel of relaxed fluidity, avoiding the sometimes clodhopping rhythms of the 70s folk rock of yore. These songs sprawl, and feel like they could stretch out to Grateful Dead length if allowed, although perhaps fortunately, the band don’t allow themselves to lapse into such self indulgence. His drumming is visually interesting, too, as he sometimes raises his left arm and holds the stick, elbow bent, poised behind his head, as if taking part in some ritualistic form of Japanese percussion. He also adopts the usual panoply of dextrous stick twirls, although didn’t attempt any of the more advanced tossing the stick in the air and catching it moves.

His singing is an unaffectedly gruff yet quite light counterpoint to the crystal clarity of Lavinia Blackwall. Alone, it might prove insufficient to carry the weight of the songs, but in duet, it adds to the perfect blend of elements which create such a fine complimentary balance. He adds the odd enthusiastic yelp at appropriate moments, which vocalises the music’s joyful propulsion. Bassist Simon Shaw (a medium sized man) locked into the rhythm section faultlessly and provided the odd bit of backing vocal. The guitarist Mike Hastings, a big man (why am I so obsessed with their sizes? Perhaps my subconscious is trying to emphasize the disparate nature of the individuals which make up the band, the different qualities which they bring to it) really comes into his own live. His playing is given much more prominence, as he has to fill the gap left by the absence of the sounds of brass bands, crumhorns, recorders and harps which fill the records. He lead guitar, with the subtle addition of effects, has a liquid fluency, with forceful attack when required (he can rock out, in other words). Thankfully, he avoids the blues-based clichés which tended to provide the rock element of folk rock in the 70s, and marred records by the likes of Trees. His flowing guitar, with its blurred slides and swift flurries of notes reminded me of the free jazz player Sonny Sharrock, with hints too of West Coast psych bands. Oddly, I was also reminded, in more of an associative way, of XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, particularly his solo on That’s Really Super, Super Girl from the Skylarking LP. That’s probably just me, though. You can get an idea of Hastings’ playing from the track Love Made an Outlaw of My Heart from the new LP Abandoned Love. He also played a bit of mournful harmonica, to add a bit of extra, plangent shading.

They played a few tracks from Carbeth, one of my favourite LPs of last year, including When I Was Young, with its impassioned chorus, and to my delight, Willows of Carbeth, which is one of their most successful amalgams of folk and rock, and which Lavinia sings with real force. No Garlands of Stars, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything. There was plenty from the new record, which occasioned wry comments about the delight with which audiences tended to greet the announcement ‘we’re going to be playing mostly new stuff tonight’. Adieu England was one of the more folky tracks, and was preceded by patriotic assertions of the beauty of Yorkshire. Other numbers, such as Baby Lay Down Your Burden (which Alex claimed was written just so that they could have a song with the word ‘baby’ in the chorus) and Love Made an Outlaw of my Heart, suggest that they are quite happy to expunge the folk element of the folk-rock formula. As previously suggested, these had as much of a traditionalist air as the folkier songs. There was no September is the Month of Death, a gorgeous song from the new album, but perhaps it would be too difficult to reproduce its atmosphere, with its medieval instrumentation and double tracked vocals, live. The small crowd enthusiastically applauded for an encore, and Lavinia came back alone to back herself on guitar for a melancholy song of lost love whose chorus sung of feeling like Monday, appropriately enough for Sunday evening. Alex was enticed back, despite complaining of a sore throat, for a final a cappella rendition of Seven Years A Teardrop, the closing track from Carbeth, during which he bent the end of his vocal lines up to meet and harmonize with Lavinia. It brought a fine concert to a quiet but rousing finish.

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