Friday, 4 May 2012

Trembling Bells, Bonnie Prince Billy and Muldoon's Picnic at the Exeter Phoenix

Trembling Bells and Bonnie Prince Billy played at the Exeter Phoenix on the last day of April (Beltane night), showcasing the songs from their recent collaborative LP The Marble Downs. It’s a wholly successful meeting of the harsh romance of the backstreets of Glasgow with the shadowy and remote backwoods of Kentucky, the British folk roots upon which Trembling Bells build their foundations combining with its transmuted Transatlantic forms. This is an album which essentially involves the king (or prince) of dark and twisted American folk taking over from frontman (although on stage he's generally to be found sitting unassumingly at the back behind his drumkit) Alex Neilson in providing vocal counterpoint to the pure and soaring soprano of Lavinia Blackwell. Neilson writes most of the material on the new album, seemingly tailoring many of the songs to fit Billy’s stage persona (a separate entity from Will Oldham, the real person behind it), although this may simply be the result of a happy confluence of thematic interests, two similar souls finding common ground in unwholesome preoccupations. These are songs full of bitterness at love left bleeding, desperate and occasionally pathetic longing, drunken self-pity, suicide attempts, cynical disavowals of the possibility of true romance, biblical allusions (all Old Testament, of course), with occasional hints of incipient murderous psychosis. The booklet art by Lucy Stein also seems designed to fit in with the Bonnie Prince’s upfront, frequently twisted and decidedly grubby sexuality. It’s roughly sketched imagery, seemingly scrawled directly from the uninhibited subconscious, is along way from Lavinia Blackwell’s illustrations for the booklet of the first Trembling Bells LP Carbeth, which drew on details from William Blake’s illustrated books. Her cover for the new album looks like a woodcut or lino print depicting a Samuel Palmer Shoreham-like village all aglow in the rising or setting sun. In the inside sleeve, the Trembling Bells quartet stand in front of a church, looking on rather nervously as Billy crouches down in front of them, his arms stretched before him as if he is about to begin an incantation, or attempt an act of magical levitation.

Before Trembling Bells took to the stage, the support group Muldoon’s Picnic performed an excellent 30 minute set. Who is or was Muldoon, I wondered, and where did he like to lay out his picnic. All was made clear on the group’s website, which informs us that it was a 19th century Irish American music hall act popular in New York. So popular, in fact, that the phrase Muldoon’s picnic found its way into common parlance, with reference to any wild coming together of vaguely roguish or disreputable sorts. Muldoon’s Picnic are an a capella group who sing a variety of mainly traditional tunes. On this night they were present in the slightly diminished form of Harry Campbell and Katy Cooper, fine Yorkshire folk both, if my ear for an accent is accurate. They were joined on stage by Alex and Lavinia from Trembling Bells, and also by Bonnie Prince Billy for one number. Their songs covered a wide geographic range within the British Isles, beginning with a paean of praise to the homelands of Yorkshire, travelling north to Glasgow, and then back down south to Oxford and Sussex. There were a number of configurations on stage, with various people disappearing into the shadows and reappearing again later. The initial quartet split to give Alex a solo turn, with Campbell and Cooper also singing a few duets. They usually mix material from around the world and throughout history (as you can hear at their Myspace site), from Breton and East European songs to medieval ballads, Sacred Harp hymns, shanties and French Canadian rounds. But tonight, in their depleted state, and perhaps in honour of the coming May Day, and playing to the strengths of their guest members, they confined themselves to British songs. Although Lavinia would have been more than comfortable with early music, an area which she has studied in depth.

Bells and Muldoons
Several pieces bore the signature style of Alex Neilson’s pen, being scattered with literary and artistic allusions, and shot through with his customary fatalistic romanticism. Some of the songs had appeared on the recent Duchess EP, which featured the coming together of the Trembling Bells and Muldoon’s Picnic factions on the second side. There’s Nothing Nobler than Yorkshire, with its percussive foot stomp after the first line emphasising the sentiment, in October is a proud evocation of the autumn atmospheres of the county, providing a poetic cartography in the form of a litany of locales, from ‘Hull to Applethwaite’, taking in the ‘mighty Humber’ and the Bay of Scarborough. From Hale to the Pearly Gates, it locates the sacred in its dales and along its coastline. Bells of Oxford, which cheekily dares to begin with a moon/June rhyme, summons up Edenic days, marked in true folk refrain fashion by ‘the sound of the bells of Oxford-o’, before lamenting their loss. Reference is made to Jane Morris, married to William Morris and pined after by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the pre-Raphaelite muse who was ‘the midwife to a million brushstrokes’. Tuning Fork of the Earth was a sensuously Pagan hymn, full of lusty mysticism, finding the spirit of the land within one particular body. Tincture of Tears takes us to Sussex, and is a bittersweet meditation on beauty, which is ‘always tempered by the fingerprint of pain’. The nightingale is ‘choking on a worm’, and the singer looks out on the Sussex landscape, ‘a poem froze in clay’, and feels as if he’s ‘enacting all those Copper songs, as in some ancient play’. Sculptor, stone carver and advocate of communal dwelling and free love Eric Gill got a mention in there somewhere, too, probably in the context of his Ditchling community in East Sussex. In a song I’d not heard before. The experimental film-maker Maya Deren, a heroine of mine, got her own featured refrain in the impressionistic, Glasgow-set The Day That Maya Deren Died (probably not the actually title of the song, but that was the repeated chorus line), sung solo by Alex. The songs were delivered with great conviction and passion, voices joining in radiant and sonorous harmonies, often of an unusual and striking pitch, whilst remaining entirely consonant and richly expressive. They brought to mind other a capella folk gatherings: The Copper Family, The Watersons, Swan Arcade and Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Indeed, they performed a spirited version of the celebratory Watersons song Bright Phoebus, a tribute to and acknowledgement of honourable antecedents. Blackwell and Neilson’s participation, and the ease with which Neilson’s songs fitted into the tradition, highlighted the extent to which folk music underpins the Trembling Bells sound. Later, they would apologise for not hanging around after the gig, as they were anxious to head down to Cornwall, so that they could witness the May Day celebrations in Padstow, with its famous hobby horse parading through the streets. Attempting to sum up the atmosphere, Lavinia said that everything goes ‘a bit skewiff’ – an English phrase which I’d not heard for a while, but will now reintroduce into my vocabulary. She also ribbed Alex about always having wanted to be a morris dancer. Evidently she hit a raw nerve, as he responded with a spluttered ‘ahh, shut up’. There’s nowt wrong wi’t, anyway. Morris dancing has become one of those easy comic targets, with an unspoken agreement that it is a national embarrassment. A recent BBC4 documentary by the Unthank sisters on English dancing customs and rituals hopefully went some way towards putting paid to that notion, however. You can get an idea of what the Muldoon/Bells axis sounded like from a session they recorded for Marc Riley’s Radio 6 show a short while back, over here.

Trembling Bells played the opening track from their new LP, I Made A Date With An Open Vein, early on. Its dramatic intro, with Lavinia Blackwell’s soprano steadily rising in a dramatic upward sweep, brought to my mind the wordless vocal passages in Carl Neilsen’s and Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphonies, both evoking expansive pastoral landscapes. Here it acts as an angelic prelude to Bonnie Prince Billy’s ascent into the heavenly kingdom, his character having killed himself (for love, of course). Any hint that he may have attained unlikely sainthood are immediately dashed, however, as, having found that is love is not there, he swiftly ‘bailed out of that gold fucking cloud’. In its blunt rejection of a celestial and incorporeal paradise, it’s an early indication that the concerns of the songs to be sung will be unapologetically earthbound and concerned with more palpable pleasures. Starting the song with the singing subject’s suicide also introduces what will be a recurring lyrical theme. It turns up again in Love Is A Velvet Noose ,with its opening lines ‘as I rode out on Valentine’s Day/All down to Beachy Head’ (Beachy Head being a high outcropping cliff on the south coast of Sussex notorious for attracting suicides). Another song is based on a poem by Dorothy Parker, who wrote her own darkly humorous meditation on the particular difficulties associated with different suicide methods, Might as Well Live. These suicide references, often in otherwise stirring songs, are an extreme expression of the strain of doomed romance which runs throughout Neilson’s writing. If not at the end of a rope, along the edge of a razor blade or from the foot of a cliff, the failure of the romantic ideal is often viewed through the wrong end of a cheap bottle of whisky. The boozy ballads of loss and longing are a reflection of Trembling Bells’ base in Glasgow, a city in which alcohol and a fierce romanticism have long been fierce bedfellows. In Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Loving, Lavinia sings ‘I’ve longed for gin oblivion’, whilst the second line of Love Is A Velvet Noose finds our abject singer, approaching his end at Beachy Head, mournfully declaring ‘my liver felt like a suicide note to Johnnie Walker Red’. Billy also sings the unseasonal New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night of the Year from the perspective of another heartbroken romantic whose been drinking ‘since September’, and Lavinia played some of her finest Chas (or is it Dave) barroom piano for the chirpy encore song of self-pitying alcoholism, You Are On the Bottom (and the Bottle’s On My Mind) – another of the blurry after hours numbers which often seem to round off Trembling Bells LPs.

Grace Slick and Marty Balin - this doesn't happen
I Made A Date With An Open Vein has Lavinia Blackwell, after her mesmerising introductory operatics, joining with the rest of the band in providing backing vocals and chorus responses behind Bonnie Prince Billy’s passionately delivered lead. Other songs, however, are structured around duets, with Billy and Lavinia taking on sparring, call and response roles, alternating fighting, pleading or cutting lines. Hearing Billy and Blackwell sing together and to each other recalls other duetting male and female vocalists: Marty Balin and Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane; Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra; Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin; Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews in the early Fairport Convention; and Johnny Cash and June Carter. In performance, however, they inhabit different worlds, with none of the facing off and throwing back and forth of fragments of vocal lines which Marty and Grace shared in Jefferson Airplane’s pomp. Blackwell is too busy concentrating on her keyboard playing whilst simultaneously singing, and Billy becomes absorbed in private ecstasies. They make for an interestingly contrasting pair, both vocally and visually. Their voices provide a good counterpoint to each other, their distinct qualities balancing well. Bonnie Prince Billy’s emotive waver, with its country catch in the voice, is set against Lavinia’s classically clear soprano, with its controlled range and dynamics. Visually, Lavinia stands tall behind her electric piano/organ, fairly still and restrained throughout, and elegantly attired in a sixties style dress. Billy, meanwhile, maintains a determinedly anti-glamorous look, wearing an old t-shirt that’s evidently a size too small, a beany pushed back on his balding bonce, which is circled by a wild thicket of hair. His beard is at medium magnitude, not as bushy as it can be but still a fulsome growth. He sways and capers throughout, waving he arms about in spasmodic, crook-elbowed gestures which recall the throaty ecstasies of Joe Cocker, and tends to hold them behind his back at intervals, proudly thrusting out his rounded belly as if in a prominent display of his finest, most alluring feature. He generally plays the role of the lusty ape, the strutting primate to the hilt. There’s a definite element of humour to the Bonnie Prince persona, a consciousness on Will Oldham’s part of the inherent absurdity of such a character, which makes the potentially oppressively downbeat subject matter of many of the songs sung tonight somehow light and even amusing. Several of these songs find him pitted against the icy aloofness of Lavinia’s characters, and the duets generally trace the end of the affair, the recriminations in the wake of the break up. It has to be said, she’s probably better off without him. Blackwell provides a contradictory voice to counteract Billy’s self-absorption, highlighting his self-indulgences and undermining any tendency towards self-mythologisation. OLove is a Velvet Noose and the driving Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Loving are both ‘argument’ songs, but the insult-based duets reach their peak on the number which brought the pre-encore performance to a rousing close, I Can Tell You’re Leaving. Here again, Blackwell’s voice was at its dramatic height on the introduction to the chorus, singing I Can Tell You’re Leaving with a thrilling, rising melismatic swell. Billy regains a little swagger after the maudlin emotional abjection and affection of disdain on previous duets, threatening that ‘like Merle Haggard, you’ll see the fighting side of me’. Not being familiar with Haggard’s work, I’m not sure what this alludes to. Maybe he’s confusing him with Marvin Hagler. In line with the sense of self-conscious absurdism and role-playing, there’s an element of auto-criticism in some of the lines which Blackwell sings. ‘You fetishize your grief’, she responds to Billy, and ‘you’re a prisoner in your own work’. This could be both Neilson making a wry comment on his own lyrical tendencies, or a little gentle poke at Bonnie Prince Billy’s reputation for eagerly embracing darkness.

The Duchess EP cover - sunset to The Marble Downs' sunrise
There were also songs where Billy and Lavinia alternated verses. This was particularly effective in the Dorothy Parker-based song Adventures in Assonance, for which Blackwell set her words to music. It’s not a poem which I can find in my copy of the Penguin Dorothy Parker. But it’s a lovely evocation of loneliness and isolation in which Paker bares the vulnerable soul which she protected behind a formidable and impenetrable shield of ascerbic wit. On other numbers, Billy takes to the fore, including howling out his own Riding, a raging tempest of a song in which he incestuously declares ‘I love my sister Lisa most of all’. Lavinia acts as an interrogatory voice, and then an admonitory, nagging shred of conscience (‘don’t you know that’s sinful boy’). All to no avail, of course. Billy is as intent as ever on his own damnation. Every Time I Close My Eyes (We’re Back There), on the other hand, appears to be a murder ballad, with Billy obeying the voice of Proverbs 31, reflecting that ‘the ultimate act of possession is homicidal love’, and living in tormented regret forever afterwards. Lavinia’s voice comes in as a ghostly reminder of heaven once more needlessly cast aside, Kylie to his Nick Cave. The darkness was temporarily dispersed by the hymnal Lord Bless Us All, a luscious lullaby written by Bee Gee Robin Gibb from his 1970 solo LP Robin’s Reign. ‘When you sleep, London streets are silent’, he wrote. ‘All the world is filled with song…Lord let all be blessed’. It is a blissful vision, and after the lyrical benediction, Lavinia’s soprano rises up to regions of wordless, transcendent praise, pushing up against but never quite breaking beyond the barriers of freeform wailing in a Patty Waters or Charalambides style. Sadly, they didn’t perform their version of Scott Walker’s Duchess, released on the recent EP, tonight. But they delved into the back catalogue for the encore and delivered a scorching Love Made An Outlaw of My Heart from the Abandoned Love LP, with Bonnie Prince Billy giving it his full, impassioned heart and soul, body wrenched with imploring gesticulations.

The band were fantastic. Alex Neilson’s ceaselessly inventive drumming really gives the music its structural base, allowing it to shift tempi with effortless and unforced ease, and hanging verses and choruses on unconventional metres without making it all seem contrived and prog-marched. This rhythmic fluidity gives the songs a multi-part, kaleidoscopic structure, always turning and realigning themselves. It lends them an epic quality, and a literary sense of offering differing perspectives. Lavinia stood behind her red keyboard, her playing veering between an electric piano sound and sweeping tides of swirling 60s organ. The former was effective for the group’s ballad side, and was particularly affecting in the slow arpeggios which backed the melancholic, yearning Excursions into Assonance. In the latter section of Every Time I Close My Eyes (We’re Back There), she played church organ-like cadences which seemed to soothe even the tormented soul of Billy. Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Loving brought Trembling Bells’ 70s rock affiliations to the fore, and Lavinia provided streaming currents of organ chords along which the song glided. In Lord Bless Us All, the organ shimmered with a glorious radiance which ascended heavenwards with her voice. Of the bassist, Simon Shaw, I can’t say much, not having much of an ear for the instrument, but he certainly never faltered or placed a note or beat out of place. Mike Hastings’ guitar was sublime, with its characteristic vibrato shiver, reminiscent of the 60s Bay Area sound of John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, as well as their modern incarnation, Michio Kurihara, guitarist with Japanese band Ghost and frequent collaborator with Damon and Naomi. Hastings played fluid patterns up and across the fretboard, fleet, mercurial and singing. His guitar could actually have done with being a little louder at some points. Perhaps it was considered that this was a night for the vocalists to take precedence. His slightly off pitch riffs and variations in Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Longing tilted Lavinia’s organ chords at an oblique angle, making the onrushing intro seem thrillingly on the verge of spinning out of control. On Riding, he lashed out with a fiery descending riff from the upper register of the fretboard, which expressed the fevered state of Bonnie Prince Billy’s possessed soul in the song, giving a good impression of where he might be headed. In the encore he was given his moment in Love Made An Outlaw of My Heart to really let rip, scoring searing slide clusters beyond the edge of the fretboard which sparked off in a meteor shower of free jazz noise reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock at his most ecstatically abandoned. He’s definitely, along with Michio Kurihara, one of my favourite modern guitarists. Just as Trembling Bells are one of my favourite current bands – and happily they wholly lived up to expectations tonight. Hopefully they’ll return soon.

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