It’s almost as if the British Summer has long gone. The wet and windy weeks we’ve just experienced have put a bit of a dampener on festivals, shows and general human goodwill. However, at the recently refurbished Royal Festival Hall on a warm and bright Tuesday evening in London, those who were there witnessed a celebration of one of the truly great and independent labels: Bella Union.
As part of our week long celebrations of their 10th anniversary, The Line of Best Fit were invited to this showcase of their best talent. An evening that included their recent signings Beach House through to the much celebrated and vaunted Howling Bells, who’d taken over the headlining set after the withdrawal of Explosions in the Sky.
Our first surprise of the evening was the identity of our MC for the festivities, the one and only Paul Morley. An interesting choice as he’s not exactly known for his exuberance but this is more than made up for by his integrity and knowledge. As he recounting the feeling of discovering new bands and how Bella Union’s releases never seem to disappoint, we bore witness to the UK premier of Beach House. Not a bad place to make your live debut, but the giant stage and very small crowd served just to swallow them and their intricate and dreamy soundscapes. Victoria Legrand looked resplendent in a turquoise ball gown and was bathed in an oceanic light, but her whispered introductions and vocals seemed to vanish under a cloud of repetitive keyboards and clipped drums. These seemed to emanate from a small green suitcase next to guitarist Alex Scally. His playing augmented their sounds, his delicate playing adding a certain something to their songs, but if they’re to succeed beyond their lush recorded sounds, their live presence might need some beefing up.
After more brief and repetitive notes from Mr. Morley we had the full on My Latest Novel experience. Their music a distant relative of the post-rock family as the elongated passages of music twists and turns through the, mainly whispered, vocals. Their set list was almost evenly split between new and old songs. Their gentle infusion of violin, xylophone and keyboards serve to drag these out of the usual rock n roll mire. The comparisons with the Arcade Fire are easy and lazy as My Latest Novel are more delicate than that. They don’t blow the audience away tonight, but then that’s not what they wanted to do. The music flows over the crowd and it was telling that label boss Simon Raymonde spent their set watching from the stalls with the rest of us. There’s something hypnotic about their sets. They’re still nervous purveyors of their art, but there’s plenty of time for that kind of development. They’ve done that hard part, they’ve got the songs.
A quick trip to the bar (they serve a rather fine pint of Theakston’s Bitter) we return to our seats for the unexpected highlight of the evening, Fionn Regan. His debut record was one of the sleeper hits of last year and was a touch dark in places, but his live show is a rather different kettle of fish. Obviously out to have a good time and to involve the, still rather sparse and quiet, crowd, he bounced through the highlights of his record. Joined on stage by a simple double bass and drums, he was occasionally joined by a dark haired mistress who helped out on backing vocals, but was never introduced. His blend of twisted folk and humour were just what the evening needed. Supposedly a celebration of Bella Union, the evening had been lacking a festive spirit before now, but as he wondered off and then, randomly, back on stage for a sort of encore, the crowd responded to his “Be Good or Be Gone” with a full sing-along.
It was now that I was treated to a Statler & Waldorf performance by two aged gentlemen behind me. Prattling on about the “fact” that there’d been no great albums since My Bloody Valentines Loveless. Good grief. However, trying to joined their discussion I was completely ignored. The lack of atmosphere up to now could well be levelled at these individuals, especially if the RFH was full of them. Why go to an event like tonight if you’re going to slate the acts before they’ve even come on stage. Get out more often and read something other than Uncut, Mojo and the NME and you might find that there’s plenty of great records being made.
Anyway, I digress. After a period of hushed quiet, Howling Bells took the stage to a rapturous reception. As the evening had been running behind schedule, we were treated to a short, sharp but sweet set to finish the evening. It feels as though these guys have been touring continually for 2 years, and they probably have, but it’s honed their sound. Now a rough and focused beast, the sounds have taken on a grander feeling live. Joel Stein’s guitar playing is really starting to develop into something special as he twists and cavorts with the guitar, eeking and stretching sounds from it and driving the Howling Bells sound. Juanita is still a cool and sexy performer and I don’t think there was a male member of the audience who didn’t want to be her guitar as she swung around the stage. Her vocals still a mesmerising and crystal clear force.
The appearance of Tom Smith from Editors for a rendition of Nick Cave’s Where The Wild Roses Grow was an intriguing cover. Smith’s vocals are perfectly suited to covering Cave, but was he trying a little too hard to ape the great man? Juanita’s covering of Kyle’s part a suitable replacement and, if anything, better than the original. Maybe this evening’s cover lacked the menace of the original, but it was played for fun and was a surprising highlight.
Another development was the formation of a one-night-only Bella Union Allstar’s band. Covering the Johnny Cash classic A Thing Called Love, members of Beach House, My Latest Novel and label supremo Simon Raymonde joined the Howling Bells on stage for a stirling, if ramshackle, rendition of this Country anthem. They’d rehearsed and everything apparently, but the tapped lyrics on the mic stands didn’t help too much as people got lost half way through.
A joyous end to the evening but one that raised a few questions. The RFH was a little on the quiet side for such a momentous event and Howling Bells actively encouraged people to come out of their seats and move forward. Perhaps a residency at the Astoria would have been better. Sitting at gigs like these always distances the crowd from the acts, and whilst this set-up might have been perfect for Explosions in the Sky, you really want to get up and dance to the Howling Bells, but you were refrained from doing so.
However, this was a great event to celebrate Bella Union’s rosta thus far. An impressive list of bands that all have the opportunity to develop and explore routes that aren’t already predefined. One of the more memorable quotes from Paul Morley was that, if Bella Union email you about their new band, you instantly want to check them out. Their quality control is that high, that you can buy an album by an artist you’ve never heard just because they’re on this label. And for that, they can only be congratulated.