Lavinia BlackwAll and Stilton – Castle Hotel Manchester, 30/03/2019

Lavinia BlackwAll and Stilton – Castle Hotel Manchester, 30/03/2019

When Trembling Bells split up last year and it became evident that vocal front woman Lavinia BlackwAll (as she now styles herself) would continue as a solo artist many must have wondered what direction she would take. She was after all coming out of a band that was both pioneering in its free improvisation and a conservation movement for folk-rock, psych and prog styles dating back to the 1960s.

To perpetuate those styles might have been a mistake and it has been evident from her only single so far and its ‘B-side’ that she wasn’t going to do that, adopting instead a more traditional folk/pop sound. Trembling Bells always gained support from 6Music particularly and that support has transferred to Lavinia so it was no surprise that this show attracted a strong audience turnout to the sauna-cum-dive bar the Castle can be on Saturday nights, the venue sparring with a loud ABBA on the juke box in the neighbouring room for attention and with a succession of Oldham Street’s less fortunate entering the performance room looking for spare change.

Lavinia doesn’t work alone and co-operates widely with Stilton, which describes itself as a pop rock folk glam band” (the first time I’ve seen folk and glam in the same sentence) whose mission is to create “songs for singing and dancing to.” It’s a pity Brannigan’s nightclubs closed down; they would have fitted in perfectly there with its philosophy of “dancing and cavorting”.

Actually, that’s being unfair to them; they are four talented musicians, and the bass player could be Keith Emerson, the likeness was uncanny. I’m not sure of their origin. Most musicians surrounding Lavinia are Glasgow-based but she hails originally from Derbyshire and the cheesy band name suggests they might also be from that part of the world. Moreover some of Lavinia BlackwAll’s songs have been co-written with guitarist Marco Rea of Stilton.

Making up numbers on a couple of songs at the end were Mike (Hastings) – one of the guitarists from Trembling Bells – and Solveig – a Norwegian violinist, who together also opened the show with a crowd-pleasing support performance which ranged over folk, a sea shanty and a hoedown.

Lavinia BlackwAll’s striking soprano voice was an integral part of the Trembling Bells mix and so it proves to be in her solo persona. Having said that, she did reveal during the evening hidden depths to her vocal capabilities such as a contralto voice and even grunts and I’d like to hear more of that. I was sufficiently impressed that I’ll stick my neck out and say that if Nightwish, for which the vocal lead is probably the most demanding female job in popular music, were to seek a replacement vocalist I’d recommend her without hesitation.

I’m sure she gets tired of endless comparisons with the likes of Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior but from the opening song, ‘Troublemakers’ (every song is new; this was probably only the second time some had been performed publicly and some may still be works in progress) it was evident that such analogies are still very much justified. I’m not sure that opening your set with a song containing the lyrics, “Troublemakers come from out of town, put another hole in the window” was really appropriate to Oldham Street though; it sort of tempted providence.

That song immediately set out Lavinia BlackwAll’s stall as a purveyor of a style that falls somewhere between 1960’s pop and folk, brought up to date with punchy lyrics, and most of the set was of that order. Yet it was followed by a ballad in a waltz format of all things, ‘Nothing Is Wasted’.

Her songs are tuneful, even more melodic overall than Trembling Bells’ were, and that was particularly noticeable in ‘Boards at the End of the Line’, which was followed by ‘John’s Gone’, which is “about John” as Lavinia helpfully explained. It could be John Shuttleworth for all I know, that weird Graham Fellows’ character seems to fit the lyrics. It was an early highlight, with another attractive melody and a hint of some of the little asides she made occasionally with Trembling Bells’; the “ha-ha” was delightful.

‘Ivy Ladder’ was more of a showcase for the band, with a smart guitar solo from Rea which transited into a cleverly syncopated guitar/piano section with Lavinia, who knows her way around the Nord; something she isn’t given sufficient credit for.

She certainly knows how to mix it up with the subject matter, too. ‘Watson’ is a song about a detective with an identity crisis so severe he might even be the perpetrator himself, a Jekyll and Hyde figure. That gave way to a sensuous romantic ballad, ‘Keep Warm’.

For the last three songs, which were ‘All Seems Better’, Hold On To Your Love’ and ‘Waiting For Tomorrow’ (“sorry, I don’t have any more” she protested), the band was joined onstage (just) by Mike Hastings on acoustic guitar and Solveig on violin – it was a tight fit. For all the high standard musically of what had gone previously their contribution collectively added quite a bit more and I would suggest that at the very least a violin part might be justified in many of these songs when they are eventually laid down on album. It can be a much more dynamic instrument than its small size hints at and as evidence I would point to its telling contribution to ‘Christ’s Entry Into Govan’ on the last ever Trembling Bells’ album, Dungeness.  

The single, ‘Waiting For Tomorrow’ played out the set, a full on soft folk-rocker which really should be getting plenty of airplay on the mainstream radio stations. The only problem that I can see is its five and a half minute length and it appeared to be extended beyond that on the night. Perhaps a radio edit might be in order?

The only fault I could find with any of the material is that many of the songs fizzled out without a satisfying ending. It is a personal bugbear of mine and it may well be that the majority of the audience didn’t even notice it.

For me, the acid test with any new artist is “would I go and see them the following night even if they were more than 50 miles away?” Trembling Bells convinced me to do that when I first saw them and now Lavinia BlackwAll has joined them.

Lavinia BlackwAll is working on her debut album, which will be released later in the year.

Live versions (Marc Riley, 6Music, December 2018) of ‘John’s gone’, ‘Keep Warm’, ‘Troublemakers’ and ‘Waiting for tomorrow’ can be found here.

Main image courtesy of Lavinia BlackwAll Facebook page

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.