Review and Photography by John Bentley

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

Having seen the tour de force of Trembling Bells backing The Incredible String Band’s Mike Heron back in January and then hearing their newest material aired on Radio 6, I couldn’t resist a return visit to Preston’s Continental to see them perform in their own right. Trembling Bells have an eclectic musical palette. They’ve developed rapidly from their folky roots and they mix musical genres like no other band. What’s more, they are really exciting live performers.

The Horse Loom / Alasdair Roberts, The Continental, Preston

First act up is The Horse Loom, the musical moniker of Northumbrian guitarist Steve Malley. Malley has played in several bands over the years and is a brilliant, fluid guitarist, with the skill of someone like Michael Chapman (“with a bit of practice, I might be alright” he jokes). The pieces he plays are mostly instrumental, like ‘Silver Ribbon’, which is inspired by the river and the seasons, he tells us. Much of his guitar playing is rather raga-like and totally entrancing. He strikes up a bit of a rapport with the audience, querying what parched peas are. It turns out they are a sort of Lancashire equivalent of mushy peas and something the folk of Preston are partial to. “My job is to make the other two bands look excellent” he quips. Not the case tonight, as he himself gives an inspired, if short, performance.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

Alastair Roberts has released albums of both traditional folk and original material and is highly respected as a musician. He has collaborated widely, including with Trembling Bells themselves, and he got a record deal with Drag City as a result of impressing Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy). Indeed during his set, Trembling Bells band leader and drummer Alex Neilson lies listening on the floor by the stage, as if in meditation. Starting with an old folk ballad, ‘The Fair Flower of Northumberland’, Roberts sings in a soft, yet expressive voice and accompanies himself on guitar. Telling us he comes from a small Scottish town, he seems a little nervous until someone in the audience breaks the ice and asks where. He tells us it’s Callander and after that he seems more at ease. His style is quite varied and particularly enjoyable is ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures in Glasgow’, about a country lad who is duped and robbed in that metropolis, featuring Martin Carthy style rhythmic guitar playing.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

The music playing on the PA system all evening is the psyche-folk of The Incredible String Band, a major influence on Trembling Bells. The band has also been compared to early Fairport Convention, with the impressive, soaring voice of singer Lavinia Blackwall being compared to Fairport’s Sandy Denny. Moreover Trembling Bells’s mixing of folk and 1960’s American psychedelia has led to comparisons with bands like Jefferson Airplane, with their powerful singer Grace Slick. As well as the collaboration with Mike Heron, mention should also be made of the band’s joint effort with Bonnie Prince Billy, the 2012 album ‘The Marble Downs’. Trembling Bells move in hallowed musical circles.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

The band’s most recent album, ‘The Sovereign Self’, is an ambitious piece of work involving some frenzied and complex instrumental work that retains folk roots, but also moves the band towards prog-rock territory, albeit with some of the cacophony of The Velvet Underground and krautrock. Tonight’s set features mostly songs from the new album, including ‘The Bells of Burford’, ‘O, Where is Saint George’ (one of several songs where Alex sings from behind the drums), ‘I is Someone Else’ (with an epic Deep Purple-ish guitar part) and ‘Killing Time in London Fields’ (featuring a retro-Farfisa organ riff). Their sound is certainly full, diverse and impressive. Few of their earlier songs are featured, but they do play the popular ‘Seven Years a Teardrop’ from their 2009 debut album.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

The dress code for the band seems to have got rather mixed-up tonight. Alex Neilson begins by jokingly apologising for his appearance (scruffy shorts and tee-shirt), but it’s hot he says. In contrast Lavinia Blackwall has made an effort and embraced both flamboyant prog and psychedelic dress styles and (with tassled gown and long blond hair) she looks a little like a caped Rick Wakeman in all his pomp. Meanwhile their hatted guitarist looks a little like a refugee from the early line-up of Jethro Tull.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

There are some technical glitches as they launch into the lovely ballad ‘The Wide Majestic Aire’, their ode to the major Yorkshire river of that name (the melody of which borrows from Donovan’s ‘Catch the Wind’). There’s also some good humoured Yorkshire-derision shouted from some Lancashire types in the audience, as the song is introduced. One of the guitar amps has broken down and this has to be sorted-out before they can go on. In the meantime, very professionally, Lavinia and Alex launch into an acappella duet, which really goes to demonstrate the versatility of this band and how they embrace many styles and genres of music. Alex also performs a solo, singing what he describes as a strange song, ‘Adam Had No Navel’. It can’t just be classed as ‘folk’ music, it’s weirder than that. They must have a big record collection for inspiration.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

The last song is the downbeat ‘Tween the Womb and the Tomb’, which features some gothic Arthur Brown ‘Fire’-style organ riffing and a real heads-down band wig-out. As they return for the encore, Alex tells us for the second time this evening that The Continental is one of their favourite venues. “One of them??” shouts someone from the back, to laughter. The encore is a cover of ‘The Auld Triangle’, and a very interesting version it is too, with a different tune to the one (by The Pogues) I am familiar with.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

It’s notable that the average age of the audience is somewhat greater than that of the band, although there are quite a few younger folk present. It’s a trend you see at many gigs now, especially if the acts concerned are considered a bit ‘folky’. It’s a shame if younger listeners are prejudiced against such music as they are missing out on hearing a lot of interesting stuff.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

What Trembling Bells do is far beyond categorisation as folk music. They are real magpies, raiding all sorts of musical genres, but somehow they produce something that is new and compelling and is their own. It will be interesting to see where they go next musically speaking. Certainly, as an exciting live band they are a ‘must see’.

Trembling Bells, The Continental, Preston

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