Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Bookhouse Boys @ Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, London

17 January 2008

The Bookhouse Boys, to Twin Peaks fans, is a secret society formed to combat darkness.

The name now also applies to a nine-piece band who, were they to be placed on a Venn diagram, would snuggle into ellipses alongside the brimstone doom of Nick Cave, the euphoria of Arcade Fire, the drama of Muse, the movie-noir of Howling Bells, the National Theatre’s costumes department and the liquid contents of a bourbon distillery.

To the sound of thudding bowling balls in this retro bowling alley containing a live music space, front man Paul Van Oestren strides to the stage, suited and booted like a 19th century Wild West sheriff alone in a town of pesky outlaws. “Evening campers,” his baritone rumbles as the band form around him. A brass section, dual drumming and multi-part vocals are the order of the day, Van Oestren and the band’s only female member Catherine Turner vocally waltzing around each other as she shimmies in her red dress, flicks back her jet black hair and pouts like a model.

A rag-tag assemblage they seem but there’s no doubting their performance skills. Uplifting wall of sound moments contrast dramatically with shimmery, reverb-laden guitars and Van Oestren’s melancholic intonations, somewhere between Cave and Stuart A Staples in diction, with a manner akin to a fiery lay preacher. Turner’s lipgloss-red dress, meanwhile, contrasts with the varying degrees of blackness worn by her artisan compadres.

At one point the band trot off in a Knights Of Cydonia direction, naturally discovering that trumpets plus rhythm and guitars eventually leads to mariachi. Twice vocals are set aside in favour of all-out instrumentals; soundtrack pieces that cry out for a top cinematographer’s best tilt at a fathomless sky at sundown. Elsewhere there are hints of gospel and rock’n’roll as the trumpeters join the vocal fray. “Who likes surf music?” we’re asked. The instrumental piece that follows, G-Surf, is no singalong Beach Boys homage, instead squeezing through speakers as a sinister, alcohol-soaked affair.

Dead and its companion piece Tonight are the masterpieces, an evocative mix of Bacharach’s ingenuity, rock’n’roll rhythm and the drama of Muse fed through a Leonard Cohen filter of too many shots, too much regret and not enough time.

Briefly the entire band down their instruments and become a choir for the rhythmic rounds of Plains Of Mexico, a short a capella piece owing as much to slave chain gangs as to sea shanties.

The strange venue and audience seem merely to hone the band’s self-belief. Well into the set, Van Oestren jumps off the stage onto the blank, carpeted area in front of him, declaring he might as well use the space. The audience get the hint and meet him half way. By gig’s end, just one bowling lane is still in use.

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The Bookhouse Boys @ Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, London