Two weeks on, and the second of the ex-Trembling Bells quintet to be reviewed in their live ‘solo’ persona after Lavinia BlackwAll (as she now styles herself). This time, the writer, drummer and vocalist Alex Rex (as he has styled himself since the 2017 album ‘Vermillion’), aka Alex Neilson. The set was performed at a fairly new and intriguing venue, the Golden Lion, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, close to the Lancashire border (in fact it’s postal code was a Lancashire one until fairly recently and its precise location became the subject of a heated debate during the show).
To be honest, one possible outcome of this show had concerned me. Alex Rex’s album ‘Otterburn’ is dedicated to a younger brother who passed away suddenly two years ago. The title references the canal boat he lived on. Not all the songs pay homage to Alastair but many do; and a live performance of the album could possibly have been a little morbid.
However, Neilson got the balance just right, presenting a potpourri of original songs with a couple of covers thrown in and in fact only two of the ‘Otterburn’ tracks made it onto the set list.
The band comprised Neilson on drums and contributing most of the vocals from the stool, together with a collection of Glasgow-based musicians: Rory (Haye) and Audrey (who is French), swapping guitar and bass – and backing vocals – throughout and Georgie (I think) on keyboards which were unfortunately mixed so far down for most of the set that you couldn’t hear them.
The set opened unexpectedly with ‘Every Wall is a Wailing Wall’ a four-part a cappella harmony accompanied later by a wailing guitar and which had something of a Shakespearian soliloquy about it, then ‘Haunted House’ which was haunting but occasionally appeared to be out of tune vocally. When I’ve seen Alex Neilson previously I’ve noticed how he can find some excruciating notes at times but they are more than outweighed by the emotion he brings to his singing.
‘Please God Make Me Good’ was notable for its lyrical content. Neilson certainly has a way with words. “I’m sticking voodoo pins in me, I felt a prick in the groin” he intoned. He possesses a form of dark humour you rarely come across these politically correct days, a breath of fresh air. Even the T-shirts available at the merch stand parody 1980’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the message clear – ‘Alex says Relapse’.
The traditional ‘Night Visiting Song’ was dedicated to Alastair, the softer tones unfortunately out of reach of those at the back owing to the arrival of Yorkshire’s representatives in the ‘Talking for England’ competition, who chatted loudly about anything and everything. That was a shame because it was a sensitive song sensitively delivered, at least from what I heard of it.
‘Master’ was the first of the ‘Otterburn’ songs to get an airing, “the masochists’ song” as he calls it, a funereal waltz which he also described as “the lyrical equivalent of a game of musical chairs on the Titanic.” The vocal delivery was also the most convincing of the show so far and there was considerably more improvisation than on the album track.
The “bittersweet” ‘Cowards’ Song’ gave way to the second ‘Otterburn’ track, ‘Latest Regret ’ one with strong shades of Americana and even gospel about it, though Neilson has described it as “’La Bamba’ re-imagined by a deranged art squirrel…(and is)…is our homage to the (John) Cassavetes film ‘Killing Of A Chinese Bookie’”.
It is also one, with its improvised jam ending here, that is the most reminiscent of Trembling Bells, although I’m not sure if the analogy will be welcome. It also offered the opportunity for the assembled musicians – even if they were not all the ones to have recorded the album track – to show that their proficiencies are no less than the old Trembling Bells’ crowd.
Again, some of the lyrics are choice.
“Oh what a wonderful life to waste/the maggots are all licking their lips/and in the graveyard of your face/I lay down…I lay down”.
‘I Am Happy’ (“a song about self-deceit” as he says – no surprise there), and somewhat reminiscent of Carter USM’s ‘Is Wrestling Fixed’, if not in musical style, was notable for me in that I suspect the drum part might have been written first while during it and the final two numbers, ‘Uses of Trauma’ (which starts off as a ballad) and ‘I’m Going Home,’ the tempo and volume surged dramatically and demonstrated unreservedly that Neilson can write and perform songs that rock. ‘Uses of Trauma’ also offered Audrey the opportunity to shine vocally. (‘I’m Going Home’ incidentally, is the one from ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Alex Nielson joked that they were going to play ‘Sweet Transvestite’ and I wish they had. Perhaps another time?
Neilson is a complex character. A drummer with many of the attributes of Ginger Baker he has had an affinity with what he calls “the darker end of psych” since his early teenage years. Much of that was evident in Trembling Bells and in the solo incarnation that may have become permanent with the release of this album he again shows, both in the recorded material and his live shows that he occupies a place inhabited by few others in British music today.
While Alex Neilson’s show was the reason for the visit to the venue I have to mention David Thomas Broughton, who closed proceedings. You can’t ignore someone who, while originally, like Nielson, from Leeds, once based himself in Pyongyang. While other artists might shift between, say, North and South London, or Yorkshire and Lancashire, he’s moved upmarket now, to Seoul and for all I know might have flown in just for this gig. His stage persona is so vastly different to anyone else I’ve ever encountered that anything is possible.
His compositions (he could have played one on the night or many rolled up into one 60-minute jam, I have no idea) take the form of fairly simple folk songs that are sampled live and embellished by a variety of sounds created through loop pedals to produce something that is at one and the same time soothing and eerie. I was convinced he was using a theremin; such was the sonic effect he conjured up. He lies somewhere between throaty 1970’s chansonnier Jake Thackray and a spaced-out Mike Oldfield.
Meanwhile, improvising as he goes, stage left or right, he is muttering sotto voce to himself and the audience, mainly about Lemsip and Strepsils (he had a heavy cold). At one stage someone called out jokingly for him to play ‘Wonderwall,’ eliciting a poker face reaction. With perfect comedic timing, a couple of minutes later when the audience had forgotten about it he deftly worked in “because maybe” followed a minute later by “you’re gonna be the one that saves me” as if those lyrics were part of his own song. That is genuine talent of the highest order.
Unfortunately his set was interrupted for a few minutes by the Wonderwaller, a gent judging from his accent to be from Pyongyang’s twin city, Manchester, who had let the drink get the better of him and become violent and who was forcibly escorted out protesting his love for Mr Broughton and his hatred for the “shit staff” who really ought to have dealt with him earlier.
I noticed Alex Neilson paying close attention to David Broughton’s performance and I wonder what was going through the mind of someone who is also renowned for his improvisation.
Oh, and kudos to opener Andy Abbott, a highly skilled strummer and plucker of an acoustic guitar with his excellent compositions.
While its only 12 miles from where I live this was my first visit to this tiny, 70-person capacity upstairs venue, part of a pub complex that was rescued from one of the many disastrous floods in the Calder Valley in recent years by the sort of community spirit that is at home in these small Pennine towns. It has a developed a reputation, deservedly, as one of the coolest venues in the north (and bear in mind the renowned Trades Club in Hebden Bridge is only four miles down the road). It could just do with being a bit bigger. Shows often sell out immediately, leaving many disappointed. And the low stage makes visibility difficult from the back. Otherwise, the acoustics are quite good and the kaleidoscope throwing off psychy images against the wall is a neat touch.
All-in-all a very good night’s entertainment, at an affordable price.