For my 10th birthday, if I remember correctly, we had a clown. He was not in the least bit amusing, walked funnily and smelled odd. Luckily, Bella Union is a much more precious child of a decade and is celebrating with a collection of fine artists rather than borderline alcoholic men in make-up.
Tonight, four artists of similar, yet distinct merits will hold birthday placards, declare their undying love for the label and enlighten us as to what Bella Union is really about, both sonically and ideologically.
All this is testament to the ideals of the label and how far they have come. From their early backing of Dirty Three (strangely absent from the celebrations) the last few years have seen a host of top-quality independent artists finding their way with Bella Union.
Tonight represents the several stages of development and success associated with the label: the young quirky upstart (Stephanie Dosen). The hyped but yet to break (The Kissaway Trail), the established indie heroes (The Dears) and their potential successors with critical praise (Midlake).
It is however, a fairly low key affair. Whilst Bella Union may have some truly special bands on their roster, none of them are really the kind to induce mass hysteria, especially in a festival hall. Stephanie Dosen is no exception. A little kooky perhaps (she grew up on a peacock farm), but with a voice that grabs the attention and enough laid back melody to ease us gently in, kind of like the first game of sleeping lions when you know it’s going to be boisterous later – calm, but with a sure-fire purpose.
So if Dosen is the calm before the storm, The Kissaway Trail must be the equivalent of the quiet kid in the corner before they get hold of the blue smarties. With a minimal amount of stage presence, they craft laid back and wistful melodies, fusing the elaborate efforts of Sigur Rós with the immediacy of an underdeveloped Arcade Fire. Recent single Smother + Evil = Hurt is the closest they get to the euphoric sound they are aiming for, a great deal of their efforts to agitate the festival hall dissipates into the high ceilings.
Which leaves the popular kids to step up and steal the show. The Dears may have two albums of artful Smiths meets Britpop melodrama under their belt, but live, they are a different proposition. Front man Murray Lightburn doesn’t croon, he wails like an emotionally stinted banshee, traversing the stage on his knees and singing songs about love, loss and paranoia. There is a distinct lack of emotional connection though – even though they sound great, the all-seated crowd fail to rise to the band’s bait.
Bait, which was clearly bought after Midlake picked out all the big ones. It’s difficult to understand how a band who specialise in low-key country-tinged ballads about the oldie world and rebel scientists can illicit quite such a rapturous response.
It probably helps that they are intensely likeable and the small army of special guests won’t do any harm either. Romeo from The Magic Numbers guests on a spirited Roscoe, Paul Weller on a rousing Young Bride, Bella Union founder Simon Raymonde on Bandits and Stephanie Dosen reappears for their best track, Head Home.
It all adds to the party spirit, and there is a sense that a true independent spirit is still alive and kicking at the label. Let’s see how they deal with the difficult teenage years.