I don’t know quite what it is about the new breed of music venue converted out of a Dry Cleaners, a bookies or a Job Centre office that inspires artists to up their game. A couple of weeks ago it was Elle Mary, putting in the best performance I’ve seen from her in an ex-motor vehicle repair shop in a Salford back street, straight out of Coronation Street circa 1960.
This time it was the turn of the extraordinary Trembling Bells, a Glasgow-based ensemble of three Scots and a couple of émigrés from West Yorkshire and Derbyshire to put on a show worthy of an arena. But rather than an amphitheatre the setting was the basement of what was once a petrol station and car showroom, then a restaurant, and now a veggie café, bar, bookstore and vintage clothing shop catering to the local student community. You access it down a dark stairwell that might lead to a dungeon and part of the roof looks like it’s about to fall in. As Dylan almost said, the chimes they are a-changing.
Trembling Bells have been around for a decade or so, their unique blend of folk-rock, psyche and modern prog having largely gone unnoticed amongst mainstream commentators until their most recent album ‘Dungeness’, released in March to a welter of superlatives in review after review, including the one in this august publication. Some are already calling it the album of the year.
Hence an enthusiastic and large crowd had gathered and stood or sat (they actually put out deckchairs, a nice touch) with growing anticipation through a couple of contrasting support acts, the engaging but lyrically dispiriting local lad Jack Mason and the electric Banjo-assaulting , Lou Reed-sound-a-like New Yorker Baby Copperhead.
They were not to be disappointed. From the opening bars of ‘Devil in Dungeness’ with its King Crimson-like arrangement it was clear Trembling Bells is a highly competent live outfit, the guitars of Mike Hastings and Alasdair Mitchell duelling rapidly as they did throughout the evening, Simon Shaw’s compelling bass lines and chief songwriter Alex Neilson’s crisp drumming underpinning each song.
To cap it all the extraordinary, powerful soprano of keyboardist Lavinia Blackwall, one of the sweetest in the business, and which never once faltered. And she has an auxiliary weapon in her armoury that you wouldn’t know from the recorded material; a shrill, piercing scream that could have halted play at the Elland Road stadium, five miles away, with no VAR required. Blackwall has been compared to the likes of Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny and Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior but right now she has few, if any, peers and her stage confidence and presence seem to have come on in leaps and bounds.
There is a great deal of darkness surrounding Trembling Bells. Their songs often embrace, if that is the right word, death, religious conflict, killing, tombs, coffins and other such assorted imagery and it extends to the stage persona of their leader, the Leeds-born Neilson welcoming the audience in his home city bizarrely to what he calls “Anal Bleeds”.
But the manner in which they transpose those songs to the stage can be dynamite and the gig took off with ‘My Father was a Collapsing Star’, dedicated by Alex Neilson, who shares the main vocal duties with Lavinia Blackwall, to family members in the audience. As is the case with many of their creations Trembling Bells have the ability that all the very best bands do to raise the temperature of a song towards a crescendo then to back off into the melody line before coming back at you again until you’re satiated, the most visual and mobile of them being Alasdair Mitchell, a throwback to the 1960s who looked as if he’d just arrived from Woodstock.
For all the superb songs played on the night, the majority – just – of them from ‘Dungeness’ and including ‘The Prophet’, ‘Killing Time in London Fields’,’ I is Someone Else’ and closer ‘Knocking on the Coffin’, the highlight came midway through with what I would argue is their belated breakthrough song, at least the one that has been seized on by radio DJs, ‘Christ’s Entry into Govan.’
To put it bluntly they absolutely killed this magnificent creation in a manner no CD, vinyl, streamed track or YouTube video (below) could ever suggest, the climax building and volume rising towards something close to orgasmic proportions and threatening to remove what remained of the roof above Mitchell’s head.
Alex Neilson returned to the stage for a touching encore a cappella version of ‘Tween the Womb and the Tomb’, dedicated to a younger brother.
Kudos is due by the way to the venue, despite the implied criticism here, for being quite atmospheric, and to the sound engineer for his skilful balance of instruments which otherwise could easily turn into an acoustic blur. Unfortunately though, while Neilson’s vocals were clear, Blackwall’s weren’t always.
There are a couple of things I don’t quite get about Trembling Bells, having listened several times to the album and gaped in wonderment at this show. Firstly, why they are still playing small venues? This one was actually considerably smaller than the last one they played in the city and the following night’s show in Todmorden (the nearest they got to a Manchester gig on this tour and of course the birthplace of Keith Emerson), was long sold out, to my dismay.
Secondly, why they are semi-professional, or at least some of them. Lavinia Blackwall’s main job is as a primary school teacher, which must seriously limit touring opportunities. The lucky pupils will certainly know how to sing. Perhaps, as in the case of some very good bands that are unsigned, they just prefer it that way.
To cut to the chase, these modern prog pioneers put on one of the most accomplished live shows I’ve seen in a long time. If they come your way, don’t miss them.
Trembling Bells’ tour continues with dates in Leicester (9th), Coventry (10th), London Bethnal Green (11th), Brighton (12th), Winchester (13th), and Newbury (14th).
Photo courtesy of Trembling Bells Facebook