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Trembling Bells – The Duchess, York, 21st August 2012

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With its low ceiling and candle-lit tables and chairs all huddled together in front of the stage, tonight this former snooker hall is looking more like a supper club than it being York’s self-proclaimed premier palace of live music.  The faux-Gaslight café vibe may owe more to the shamefully low number of people who are expected in the venue this evening, but it is also something that is reinforced by Edd Barlow’s acoustic folkie troubadour opening act.  It is a performance of great maturity and quietly understated confidence by this 21 year old, reflected in his unerringly accurate reading of “Dark End of the Street” and an equally convincing encore of Springsteen’s “My Hometown”.  Another local musician, Oliver Grabowski, tonight flying solo under the moniker of Endangered Species and who despite his slightly gauche hesitancy still manages to contort the middle range out of his Rickenbacker to no little effect.  He seems genuinely surprised at being invited back to also perform an encore.

By the time that the Glaswegian based Trembling Bells appear, though, The Duchess’s ambience seems to have dramatically shifted from that of the Greenwich Village coffee bar into the darker and deeper underground of London West One’s Unlimited Freak Out club.  It is incredible what five spotlights at the back of a stage can do.  And through the back lit shadows of their relentless glare the music also moves, this time some five years ahead into the lysergic, foggy swirl of the late ‘60s.   When I had first seen Trembling Bells four months earlier they had conjoined with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and this union had produced a mellow, languid stroll through some of their respective back pages. Tonight that more esoteric and whimsical take on the traditional song had been consumed by a darker, more psychedelic force wherein It’s A Beautiful Day had mutated into The Doors and emerged a few years later as a blissed out Fotheringay for the modern age.

It is therefore such a crying shame that the edge of this absorbing, reckless and progressive take on a more conventional folk music is severely blunted by a muddy sound that feels as if it may have been dredged up from the river bed of the nearby Foss. The purity, tenderness and strength of Lavinia Blackwall’s voice are lost in the depths of this helpless and hopeless mix and Alex Neilson’s distant drums could well have been playing in another county. Old songs and new songs each suffer a similar fate, their swirling melodies and staggering power struggling for air with which to breathe.  The tender grandeur of Scott Walker’s magnificent “Duchess”, perhaps understandably given the song’s title does survive almost intact though you are still left yearning for that perfect counterpoint of Will Oldham’s tremulous croon. It isn’t until the encore, yet another inspiring progression of music from an earlier time that Blackwell’s voice punches a hole straight through the sonic mire and the song’s melody is finally allowed to run free.  Sadly, this only goes to show what could, and should have been.

Simon Godley – 23rd August 2012


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.