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Live From Coventry & Kings Heath: Trembling Bells, Willie Watson, Hailu Mergia & The Destroyers

Live From Coventry & Kings Heath: Trembling Bells, Willie Watson, Hailu Mergia & The Destroyers
Martin Longley By

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Trembling Bells
The Tin & The Kitchen Garden Café
August 3 & 5, 2015

It's sometimes instructive, or even enjoyable, to catch a combo twice during their tour. Perhaps this might lead to what seems like a repeat showing, and on other occasions there is an insight into wildly varying tactics. There's always much talk from musicians about being affected by the room they're playing in, but when Glaswegian folk rockers Trembling Bells gigged in Coventry and Birmingham within three days, the respective venues prompted very different approaches.

Monday night rules were broken, as The Tin in the Coventry canal basin became unusually crowded, a mostly standing audience bowing down to the eardrum pressure of a p.a. system that was crunched up higher than the small space required. As is so often the case, our hearing receptacles soon adapted, aided by a central placement, right in the crossfire path of the band's twinned lead guitars, Michael Hastings and Alasdair C. Mitchell alternately shooting out solos, exchanging the role of ascendancy for each song.

The Bells first rang together in 2008, coming together in Glasgow, taking materials from forebears such as Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band, but gradually upping the proggy, psychedelic extremities, forging their personalised evolution of a tradition that was itself an evolutionary step, back in the late 1960s. The new Tremblies album has been released by Tin Angel Records, which is operated out of this same venue, so the gig represented a homecoming of sorts.

Drummer Alex Neilson was last seen here as half of the Death Shanties improvising duo. As a founder of the Bells, he sings on a few numbers, but the bulk of the vocal duties are handled by Lavinia Blackwall, who also plays electric keys and occasional guitar. Her high and pure lines are delivered in such a manner that it's hard to avoid comparisons with Sandy Denny, Blackwall's training in early music also showing through. Already, two of the new songs have become focal points of the current set, with "Killing Time In London Fields" boiling with running tension, a transubstantial, progged epic that moves through different melodic phases, from ripping to floating, the organ setting turned full-on, Blackwall's vocals geared for maximum drama. Then there's the rampaging "Bells Of Burford," and as a late bonus, "I Is Someone Else," which employs a guitar-heavy middle section that's lifted from David Bowie's "The Width Of A Circle." All of these rocked out with the easy precision and assurance of a band that's already been weeks on the road. The set climaxed with Blackwall headbanging her tresses whilst attempting to destroy her keyboard, a total freak-out explosion that was followed by an a capella song, teaming her and Neilson, who'd already delivered a song or two of his own earlier in the set. Assistance for calming down, following the frenzy.

Bassist Simon Shaw wore a Can t-shirt for the Coventry gig, exchanging it for a Nico t-shirt at the Birmingham show. We wondered if he sports a different fave artist on each night of the tour. The Kitchen Garden Café had sold out all its tickets, and this smaller, seated venue provided a very different environment, to which the Bells adapted with great sensitivity. This is not to say that they stripped back to an acoustic nature: instead, they changed the dynamics, toning down the volume, but retaining the thrust, making the projection less exaggerated. Whilst the Coventry gig was ultimately superior in its extremity and power, this was an alternative perspective on the band and their material. They came on like more of a hardcore folk outfit, revealing the essence of their songs, even encoring with a different choice, "The Auld Triangle," as popularised by The Pogues.

Willie Watson
The Hare & Hounds
August 4, 2015

Sandwiched in-between the two Trembling Bells gigs was Willie Watson, also a purveyor of folk music, but of a completely purist, acoustic character. This New York singer, guitarist, banjoman and occasional harmonica tooter was a founder member of the Old Crow Medicine Show, but has lately taken to stripping back his sound to the troubadour basics. He made his solo debut in 2014 with Folk Singer Volume 1, and he's promising a second shot of hardcore classics, coming soon to your virtual record store. Nearly all of the songs in Watson's present repertoire are readings of established oldies, whether they spring from country, blues, gospel or merely mainline folksiness. This Hare'n'Hounds gathering was intimately full, with every table and seat-row filled, but the room still not being overly crowded. This was a group of specialist punters who were ear-cocking their way through the 90 minute set, savouring the authentic historical reproduction of this zingy songbook.

Watson is so distilled as a performer that the experience was very much like time-warping back to the 1920s, or the 1960s version of the 1920s, or when he actually delivered an original, the 2015 incarnation of multiple decades. Some of the numbers could have stepped out of the 1950s, but whichever decade was the source, this was the naked holler'n'string-tingle of old timey days. Watson's voice is athletically mobile, highly expressive in its flight, as he whooped, twanged, cried and drawled, loading up the emotional resonance. His guitar and banjo playing were aggressively attacking, a spray of hurtle-picked notes and phrases. Rarely do we hear a banjo proponent who can flash through such involved five-string riff-showers with such accuracy and delineation. Watson kept the night entertaining with his good-natured, crowd-opening chat, his one lack being a reluctance to talk about the songs, tales behind their history, and who penned them.

The ditties flashed by in droves, often less than two minutes long. Watson included many of those featured on his album, a notable highlight being "Keep It Clean," an old Charley Jordan blues from the 1930s, and then the more familiar Lead Belly-identified trad classic "Midnight Special." Another hot one was the similarly traditional oldie "Stewball," garnering an audience singalong. Just about the only criticism to make was that Watson should have split his show into two parts, giving the audience a break. A 90 minute set of solo shorties did eventually become an onslaught of song material, without any pause for digestion.

Hailu Mergia
The Tin
August 6, 2015

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