live review: Trembling Bells with Bonnie Prince Billy, Union Chapel,6th May 2012

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On the back of their recent collaborative album The Marble Downs, Trembling Bells and Bonnie Prince Billy have embarked on this short tour. A lot of the dates concentrated on venues in the South West of the country due to a tie in with May Day celebrations and the Routes South West organisation. Tonight though, it concluded in Union Chapel, a church in Islington which was recently chosen as Time Out's favourite London venue. Sadly I have no photos to record this, but the old church looked stunning as we entered just before dusk, and the natural light was still streaming through the stained glass windows. The show was sold out, but it was the eve of the May Day bank holiday and it was quiet outside.

In terms of the entertainment on offer, we were eased in gently with Harry and Katy from the vocal-only group Muldoon's Picnic, who tonight were joined for most of their set by Alex and Lavinia from Trembling Bells, and in a very brief unannounced cameo, Will Oldham himself. They sang traditional songs from all around the country - they mentioned Yorkshire, Oxford and Glasgow, and managed to work in some original material as well. The voices sounded lovely in this famous old church.

As Trembling Bells are playing with their usual line-up, Will Oldham initially assumes the role of a guest vocalist. Without an instrument, his unique stage moves are something to behold. I often forget that he is a trained actor, and tonight he has dressed down so that the only theatrical flourish to contrast with his simple grey/blue tshirt and trousers combination is that he is wearing black nail polish.

They began with their eerie atmospheric version of Robin Gibb's 'Lord Bless All', and given the setting it is a perfect choice, with evocative lines like "and when you sleep, London streets are silent".
They play the first song they released together 'New Years Eve's The Loneliest Night of the Year' before they get to tackle the Marble Downs material.
'I Made a Date (with an Open Vein)' brilliantly blends the strengths of both acts together, and now Will's voice starts to come to the fore.
The Bonnie Prince Billy song 'So Everyone' follows this and is an early crowd pleaser and a surprise for those who thought tonight may have just been a run through of the Marble Downs material.
Later in the set Will revisits the Palace Songs era for 'All Gone, All Gone' which is also notable for being the first time he picks up his guitar.
The talents of Trembling Bells aren't overlooked though, and Lavinia's musical arrangement of the Dorothy Parker poem 'Excursions into Assonance' is really lovely. It is very subtle, with simple keyboards and her and Will's voices working together beautifully for the first few minutes, before the band build on it.
Overall, the acoustics in here favoured the quieter moments as some of the noisier parts got lost, although happily I was on the right side so Mike's guitar actually came across well. Louder songs like 'Everytime I close my eyes' and 'Ain't Nothing Wrong With a little Longing' were impressive but made we want to see them somewhere smaller.

They also touched on some uptempo country music and Will even breaks out a kazoo before launching into a faithful cover of Merle Haggard's 'Tonight the Bottle let me Down'. Inevitably this leads into their witty duet 'I Can Tell You're Leaving' which name checks Haggard. It's one of the many stand-outs from the album and may well be the best bickering-couple song since 'Fairytale of New York'.
The main set ends on a reflective note with a lovely version of 'Love is a Velvet Noose'.
When they reassemble for the encore just Will and Lavinia come out and she takes the lead vocal on the bawdy 'My Husband's Got No Courage in Him', then the band creep back on and launch into a stunning version of 'Riding' from the early Palace Brothers days.
They leave us with a lovely version of BPB's recent single 'There is No God' which rounded off the 90 minute show in fine style.

Their voices sounded superb in here, however some of the appeal of Trembling Bells is that they are a loud and intense live act, and tonight some of that went swimming up into the heights of the chapel. This show was great, and their joint efforts should really yield more material, or at least a live album, but next time I'd like to see them in somewhere with a bit of a lower ceiling. That's a minor gripe, because tonight we got to witness something special.

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