229 – July 29th
English folk music is back. Or judging by the assorted bald heads and manes of grey hair, it’s never really left. Tonight’s two freaky folk flag bearers – Scottish headliners Trembling Bells and Kent’s Galley Beggar – are certainly far younger than the majority of their audience as they tap into a vein of pastoral rock offering a flashback to the heady Sixties of the Incredible String Band and Pentangle.
But we’re nowhere near a druid rock formation or making daisy chains in a field for this revival tour. And there are, thankfully, no Mumfords in sight. Instead, we’re tucked deep below student halls in central London in a refreshingly unreformed venue owing more to your local working man’s club than Cropredy. And in those unflashy surrounds the five-strong and fairly young Trembling Bells knock out a convincingly tight set of unhinged, angular and countrified rock.
In full flow, it’s impressive to see the band faithfully assume some of the hallmarks of the fertile if well-ploughed folk rock tradition – complete with a brave a cappella by drummer Alex Neilson on the wild song, Adam Has No Navel. It was part sea shanty, part Zappa bizarre.
Singing is at the heart of the band’s music, with Lavinia Blackwall howling up a storm from behind her organ. Her delivery is eerily reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux at times as he belts out every line with icy drama as her sweaty boys get on with ploughing their proggy rock furrow. With most of their one hour set devoted to songs from their recent album, The Sovereign Self, it sees tunes such as ‘O’, ‘Where is St George’, ‘Killing Time in London Fields’ and ‘Tween the Womb and the Tomb’ marry up the musical past and present with satisfying results.
Notably, there was little ‘future’ involved in the show. After you get over the strangeness of the Trembling Bells’ hybrid sound, it’s tempting to think that they’re just masters of jamming a number of unrelated styles together into one envelope rather than breaking any musical moulds. They are certainly sonic magpies – but it would also be nice to see them stretch the boundaries a bit more by stretching out their songs and varying up the dynamics.
Despite the limitations, their impeccable chops and well-honed stage show make it clear that the group are just taking smaller risks as they keep their vision of modern folk music looking forward, while still referencing the past. It’s an awkward, if traditional, marriage at times but one with enough love to see these musical lovers safely through.