The Cumberland Arms is a community style pub on a small hill above the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. In addition to the normal social drinking that goes on there, it arranges a range of different events including hosting regular gigs in it's small upstairs room above the bar. I've had some wonderful nights there over the years; Thurston Moore with Michael Chapman, Subway Sect, The Blue Orchids and The Nightingales and just last Wednesday Trembling Bells. An evening fit to compare with any one of them.
I went alone, taking the taxi from Central Newcastle in a foul mood. I'd had a run in with a dreadful corporate drone at work which had depressed and angered me, and I'd thought about passing on the gig. This however is not a good idea in my experience, always leaving a 'what if?' question mark hanging which I've always harboured since missing an early Stone Roses concert on the cusp of their fame in my university days, when I'd come down with a slight cold and stayed in. After all, if things don't work out you can always leave early. I certainly did the right thing this time round.
The Cumberland Arms is a very pleasant venue, particularly during this apparently endless, glorious summer. I sat in its front garden supping beer rather than watching the support acts, who veered rather towards the more conventional kind of Folk that I've always been wary of. Various members of the band wandered past at various points and we exchanged pleasantries. I also saw a good friend of mine, Steve Drayton who's a local celebrity and all round man on the scene whose Record Player evenings at the Tyneside Cinema were a definite inspiration leading me to start writing this blog more than five years back.
Needless to say Steve was great company as always and his friends were fine people too and this all helped to while away the time 'til The Bells were due to play. Just beforehand I found myself inside the small back bar when Alex Neilson the drummer, main songwriter and leader of the band came past me. I told him that Christ's Entry into Goven (the centrepiece of their wonderful latest album Dungeness),was my favourite song of the year, which it is, and he thanked me, shook my hand and asked my name, then went off to prepare to play. I thought nothing more of it at the time.
A few minutes later upstairs dramatic rumours were whispered. Alex was apparently not well at all, (food poisoning apparently), and wasn't sure to play. The rest of the band assembled somewhat uneasily onstage without him while he hovered at the doorway uncomfortably.
Just as they seemed about to set off without him he made his way though onto the low stage and they started to play. What followed was the finest hour or so of live music I've experienced this year.
Trembling Bells aren't for everyone, partly because they aim high. Their music is perhaps best described as Cosmic Folk although there is a large dose of Prog in their mix. They remind you of things, how could they not given their sound? In my case these are a lot of things from the early Seventies that I probably wouldn't choose to listen to myself, (not being a Prog man myself by any stretch of the imagination), but in their hands it all becomes deeply palatable and appealing.
Perhaps the most immediate set of references for what they do come from main singer Lavinia Blackwell who was perched at the front of the stage on keyboards and mic. As soon as she opens her mouth and sings, the reference points are undeniable; Sandy Denny, Grace Slick, Mariska Veres and Sonja Kristina inevitably come to mind and the spirit of their most wonderful records is invoked.
That the band, (and Neilson most of all apparently), become slightly disgruntled by such comparisons, is understandable because of how good they are, but the comparisons are inevitable and its actually a veiled compliment to them as what they do is so powerful and thought through.
The evening passed in a happy blur. It felt like 1972, (when I was six and into Chicory Tip). The fact that the walls of the room were visibly sweating was little more than an irritant. At a certain point Neilson from his drum stool made a reminder between songs to, 'Go and buy our records'. In many respects he was quite right to do so. They're far too great a band to still be playing venues this size at this point of their career. Frankly, it's a damning indictment of our time and tastes.
And then the highlight. At least for me! When it came to playing Christ's Entry, Alex from his stool said, 'I'd like to dedicate this to Bruce...' and off they went. I found the gesture incredibly touching and if it incurred Mr.Drayton's humorous wrath the next day in a message to me on social media, 'As their Number One fan, I should have had it...' , so be it. I left the venue sated and momentarily freed from the grip of the corporate drone. Pretty much only music can do things like that. So, Trembling Bells, you were and are wonderful, Dungeness is a genius album and I'm now an even firmer devotee than I was before Wednesday night. Many thanks!