Folking good
Trembling Bells - Live At The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

The small town of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has been a haven for hippies, folkies and those of an alternative persuasion since the ‘60s, so it’s no surprise to see the redoubtable Trades Club bustling with a mixed crowd of music fans eager for a knees up.

They’re all here to see the critically acclaimed Glasgow based four-piece, Trembling Bells. With an album a year released on Honest Jon’s Records since 2009, all well received by the wider music commentariat, the band have carved out a medieval-tinged folk niche that may not command lucrative commercial reward but certainly holds a steadfast place in the tastes of many. This year saw the release of ‘The Marble Downs’ LP, a collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and tonight they air one rollicking number from this album, ‘Ain’t Noting Wrong With A Little Longing’ – with Trembling Bells percussionist and songwriter Alex Neilson covering vocals in the absence of folk royalty. Neilson used to drum for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and they also cut the ‘Duchess’ EP together this year, so it’s clearly a longstanding relationship.

The night kicks off with Neilson up front and singing a track called ‘Golden Lamb’ a cappella with front woman Lavinia Blackwell. It’s a sombre start to the evening that immediately throws into relief the soaring quality of Blackwell’s voice. The band’s name could conceivably stem from the lungs on her, as her voice peels like resounding bells, filling the room to the rafters. After the audience’s attention has been grabbed, the three fellas take up their instruments and launch into ‘Just as the Rainbow’ the opening track from 2011’s ‘The Constant Pageant’. It’s a jarring departure as the drums welt and the guitars wail in an ebb and dirgey flow. They also showcase ‘Colour of Night’ from this album and here the sound of an ancient England comes through with ye olde melodies and images of a woodland shindig held by Robin Hood and his merry men. Blackwell studied medieval music and this influence carries into a few of the songs as they conjure this sound of the Middle Ages, albeit with a droning jazz-rock band blasting it out. The lyrics also weave together old narratives and traditional imagery, as in the live staple ‘Goathland’, which actually mentions the aforementioned outlaw, Blackwell singing, “I put paid two days in Robin Hood’s bed, drinking real ale in the shadows of graves”. For the uninitiated, the historical leanings may create an effect akin to visiting some ancient National Trust building but not knowing anything about the place - it’s impressive, but you’re not sure why or what it’s all about. Still, Blackwell compels at centre stage, very much the fair English damsel with long blonde flowing locks and a fairy tale voice. At times her vocals have the tonal quality of the sound made by a moist finger traced around the rim of a thin glass, an elevating and pure reverberation.

They close the set with ‘Tincture of Tears’, the duet recorded on the ‘Duchess’ EP, Neilson once more taking vocal duties in the absence of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. While Trembling Bells don’t go for instant accessibility, and some of their repertoire can be hard to get behind, they perform with utter commitment and an obvious emotional investment in these songs, and this sustains the more challenging moments of the night.

Words by Nick Rice

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