Gig Review and Photography by John Bentley

Mike Heron and Trembling Bells

As a fan of the former Incredible String Band, I thought tonight’s Mike Heron gig would certainly be worth an evening out in Preston, but it turns out to be a real treat, a beautifully rich tapestry of ICB music plus a lot more.

Sweeney Astray

This is my first visit to The Continental and, indeed, to the Lancashire town of Preston. The Continental is a real gem of a venue and I shall certainly return. Support band are Sweeney Astray, a folk ensemble, with a fairly flexible line-up, named after a medieval Irish poem. Lead singer Mike Kneafsey is centre stage throughout and has a strong voice. He writes most of their songs, but they also do a cover of Cherry Ghost’s ‘Mathematics’. The songs often tell stories and the style reminds me a little of I Am Kloot.

Mike Heron and Trembling Bells

For those younger folk not familiar with The Incredible String Band (‘ICB’), you really ought to be. They were a groundbreaking and highly influential psychedelic folk band (if you have to put them in a category) who produced a string of brilliant albums in the late 1960s. No other band sounds anything like them. Robert Plant and DJ John Peel were two of their biggest fans and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, included one of their songs in his ‘Desert Island Discs’ selection. Besides the great music, the band were prominent in developing elaborate stage shows, featuring a variety of (often exotic) musical instruments. ICB were essentially Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, both very strong, yet contrasting, songwriters.

I was introduced to ICB whilst at university by my room-mate, Malcolm. I still have a tape of an ICB compilation he gave me, complete with jump on the track ‘The Minotaur Song’, where Malc had dropped the stylus on the record when he returned, the worse for wear, from an evening at the pub. Sadly Malc is no longer with us, but, eerily, there’s a young guy in the second row of the audience who looks a lot like him. Maybe Malc’s just popped back tonight for another listen.

Mike Heron and Trembling Bells.

For the tour, Mike Heron has teamed up with electric folk band Trembling Bells. The Bells have been greatly influenced by the ICB, have had some great critical write-ups, and have notably collaborated with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on the 2012 album ‘The Marble Downs’.

From the start of the gig there are technical problems with microphones, which either don’t work or emit loud crackles. While the problems are sorted, singer Lavinia Blackwall and drummer Alex Neilson take the initiative and launch into an acapella version of ‘Tincture of Tears’, a song that they recorded with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

Mike Heron and Trembling Bells

Most of the songs tonight come from the Incredible String Band’s repertoire. While former band member Robin Williamson is absent, some of his songs are performed by Trembling Bells, with Lavinia Blackwall taking Williamson’s vocal part. First up is ‘Maya’, an elaborate loud/soft Williamson song, exquisitely arranged and featuring some nice organ drone and bongo drums. Later she sings ‘Waltz of the New Moon’, backed by some tasteful harpsichord.

Then Mike Heron comes on to join the band for a string of ISB songs. This really is a perfect collaboration, which over the evening produces some interesting interpretations of ISB’s repertoire. On ‘This Moment’ and some other songs we get great interplay of Heron and Blackwall’s voices. Heron’s daughter, Georgia, features on keyboards all evening and duets with him on ‘Painting Box’ and it’s touching to see the real empathy between father and daughter. She also duets with Lavinia Blackwall on ‘Cold Days of February’. Then there is a six-part acapella rendition of ‘Sleepers, Awake!’ The Bells are great musicians in their own right. Drummer Alex noticeably puts in some great percussive effects during the evening.

Georgia - Mike Heron and Trembling Bells.

Then there are the solid ISB standards, which get the feet tapping. The stomping hillbilly ‘Log Cabin Home in the Sky’, complete with harmonica, and the Heron multi-part epic ‘A Very Cellular Song’, perhaps the only song ever about amoebas! Cellular Song is a real memorable closer for the main set, with Georgia reproducing the original organ and harpsichord parts with great skill and the Bells’ guitarist dropping the kazoo mid-song, to much amusement on-stage. The band seem to be having great fun.

With the delays due to microphone problems, it’s now gone 11pm and there’s time for just a single song encore. Mike Heron talks about Clive Palmer, who was an original member of ISB, but left after the first album. He died last year and Heron tells us Palmer liked singing songs like ‘Bright Morning Stars’, which he then performs acapella with Georgia. I saw Palmer and Heron perform together at an ICB reunion concert in 2004 and I’ve included a picture below from their gig in this review.

Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, The Incredible String Band, Robin2, Bilston, 2004
Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, The Incredible String Band, Robin2, Bilston, 2004

So, a great evening. The Heron / Trembling Bells collaboration is an inspired one that really works. For the ICB uninitiated – recommended listen, ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’.

Mike Heron and Trembling Bells Setlist: Tincture of Tears (Trembling Bells); Maya; Spirit; This Moment; Air; I Took To You; Waltz of the New Moon; Wide Majestic Aire (Trembling Bells); Seven Years; Painting Box; Feast of Stephen; Log Cabin Home in the Sky; Cold Days of February; Sleepers, Awake!; A Very Cellular Song; Bright Morning Stars.

One Response to “Mike Heron and Trembling Bells at The Continental, Preston, UK – 30th January 2015”

  1. Teresa drault Says:

    Love ISB!

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