The Union Chapel’s hundreds of gigs each year are neverother than richly atmospheric, but some shows seem especiallysuited to its gothic beauty. Tonight’s show from Trembling Bells and Bonnie’Prince’ Billy was to prove one of those occasions. The pairing first cameabout in 2009 when Trembling Bells drummer/leader Alex Neilson worked withWill Oldham on No Earthly Man by Alasdair Roberts. Since then theyhave supported Oldham and earlier this year released The Marble Downs, analbum that showed off their respective talents.
Their decision to open with the closing track on The Marble Downs, theirversion of Lord Bless All by Robin Gibb, suggested this wouldn’t justbe a quick, chronological trawl through the album. Part-psych-drone and partancient-hymn, it’s an excellent, swirling opener.
Other tracks from the album sound just as impressive tonight – I Made A Date(With An Open Vein) has a ragged roughness to it and they career throughAin’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing, propelled by the insistentkeyboard/guitar riff. Excursions Into Assonance meanwhile showcases theunblemished beauty of Lavinia Blackwall’s voice, which contrasts nicelywith the pithy profanities uttered when she earlier hits the wrong openingnote on the keyboard.
Pleasingly, they also dip into their respective back catalogues. They playthe wistfully pretty New Years’ Eve Is The Loneliest Night Of The Year fromTrembling Bells’ The Constant Pageant album from last year and later theysprint boisterously through Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart from 2010′sAbandoned Love. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy leads the band through versions of SoEveryone from Lie Down In The Light, Goat & Ram from Superwolf, hiscollaboration with Matt Sweeney, and 2010 single There Is No God.
Oldham is the personification of eccentric showmanship over the course ofthe evening, indulging in one-legged, loose-limbed dancing and theatricalhand gestures throughout. He also contributes many moments of lyricalbrilliance, whether he’s singing about his liver feeling like a suicide noteto Johnny Walker Red or illicitly commenting on seeing angels in theirunderwear. The lyrics of I Can Tell You’re Leaving reference MerleHaggard and appropriately later in the set they cover the American’s TheBottle Let Me Down, which shows that Trembling Bells are just as comfortablein the realm of country as they are with their more familiar traditionalBritish folk.
For the encore Oldham and Blackwall take to the stage alone to sing thestarched, austere My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him (complete withsalacious lyrics). It might not be quite as grisly in content as some of thetales found on Murder Ballads by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds but itcertainly inhabits similar ground (while Blackwall’s voice also captures asimilar level of primal, robust power found in that of PJ Harvey).The rest of the band creep on stage to ensure they can launch straight intothe plundering, reverberating guitars of Riding, a track resurrected fromOldham’s days in Palace Brothers.
The omission of Ferrari In A Demolition Derby from the set is the onlyslight disappointment but it doesn’t seem right to dwell on any kind ofnegative. As people file out of the venue the overriding feeling is one ofhope – that this very natural of musical relationships can continue toproduce such spellbinding results.