Live | Bonnie Prince Billy & Trembling Bells

Sara Rees visits The Trinity venue in Bristol to revel in a live performance by Bonnie Prince Billy and Trembling Bells.

To some, he is the undisputed king; to others, he’s unknown. Over the past 20 years Will Oldham aka Bonnie Prince Billy has produced as many albums, acquiring cult status for his prolific and unique musical output. Tinged with melancholic grace and sung with disarming fragility, he brings us intimate tales of wayward love and the peregrinations, trials and tribulations of the soul. In Marble Downs we see the genre-defying influences of Bonnie Prince Billy (indie, diy, punk, roots, folk, country) come together for a wild romp with the British ‘60s-inspired psychedelic folk rock of Glasgow-based Trembling Bells, to gloriously anarchic effect.

There is, in fact, already a bit of history here. Drummer and founder of Trembling Bells Alex Neilson, an extremely talented singer and songwriter himself was previously drummer for Bonnie Prince Billy. I first saw Glasgow-based Trembling Bells at End Of The Road in 2010, and again at Swn later that year. Both times I was, and continue to be utterly blown away by ‘Just As The Rainbow’, the opener to the band’s third, and most accomplished album to date The Constant Paegant, which shows off Levinia Blackwell’s voice in all its breath-taking splendour. Goosebumps guaranteed. Sadly we were only teased with the intro of this piece, which had been sawn off and stuck on the front of one of Oldham’s songs. ‘Naughty’.

Bonnie Prince Billy & Trembling Bells review
Bonnie Prince Billy & Trembling Bells,
supported by Muldoon’s Picnic
The Trinity, Bristol

Seen live, the pairing of Blackwell and Oldham seems an unlikely one. Her polished glamour and composure next to his shambolic scruffiness was wonderfully, even comically, incongruous. But their voices work beautifully together – the purity and precision of her voice with the soft, slightly broken warble of his, each further accentuating the qualities of the other.  At times the voices blend in amongst the swirling guitars, keyboard and pounding drums as the dense orchestration builds to walls of sound, swelling and raucous. At others, such as ‘Love is a Velvet Noose’ and ‘Excursions into Assonance’ the vocals are given more room to breathe. And the cover of the eighteenth century song ‘My Husband’s got no courage in him’ is sung in traditional folk style of a cappella, despite its decidedly un-chapel-like sentiment.

Here, as elsewhere on Marble Downs there is a deliciously dark humour at play, the lyrics of what are largely duets penned with mirth and mischief. This is such great material for the two vocalists to play up to live, which would have been great fun for us and for them. But the Prince’s eccentric and exuberant prances and glances were lost on Levinia. Whilst it’s only fair to mention that she was playing either keyboard or guitar throughout as well as singing, I suspect this lack of eye contact, with him and with us, is down to shyness. As audience, we don’t necessarily expect eye contact from all members of a live band but it’s an important part of the role of front-man or –woman. It’s another expressive tool at a performer’s disposal, one that acknowledges of our presence as audience, and creates a bond between performer and us.

This is really my only criticism of what was a fantastically thrilling night of powerful, tumultuous, romantic, wildly inventive and accomplished psychedelic folk rock, with dizzyingly rich instrumentation, imaginative compositions and melodies referencing more musical styles that you can count on two hands and your toes too. This is an inspired collaboration that fans of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy will relish as a welcome change in tempo and style for him. For those new to Trembling Bells, I would recommend starting with The Great Pageant before moving on to Marble Downs. Both are released on Honest Jon’s Records.