Thursday, 21 July 2016

997 BELLY, Bristol O2 Academy, Wednesday 20th July 2016

Out of town gigging for a (recent) change, for another band scratching that 90’s reunion itch… and this one I saw coming a mile off. Or at least 22 months off, since September 2014 (gig 926), when Tanya Donelly supported half-sister Kristen Hersh’s Throwing Muses, throwing (!) into her set not only a couple of her own Muses numbers (dating from when her poppier Muses material was the candyfloss to her semi-sibling’s broken glass, the soothing balm to Kristin’s traumatic fever), but, more significantly, a few numbers from her own subsequent splendid 90’s dreampop-indie band Belly. A Belly reunion was, for me, on the cards from then, given the seriously enthusiastic reception evidenced at that gig, and the only surprise, following a sprinkling of shows around the Boston area featuring Tanya and her Belly partner in crime, “rock chick” bassist Gail Greenwood, was that it took until earlier this year to be confirmed!

Confirmed it was, and when the tour announcement included a Bristol date, I jumped on pre-sale tix for me and Rach. Tonight we hit the road early, joined by fellow Belly-ites “Beef” plus Rich and Helen for a swift drive down to the usual Trenchard Car Park Level 8, hitting the venue early doors at 7.30. Not many in, and not many expected tonight, with both the back bar and balconies shut off, but nonetheless an enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd (some old school Muses and Breeders shirts out of mothballs for tonight!) filled up as Rach, Beef and I took our usual stage left spot near the front, and Rich and Helen met up with a Bristol-based friend and split off stage right. We didn’t know the significance of that, at the time… The witching hour of 8.30 was greeted with a puff of dry ice and a pastoral intro tune, then Belly took the boards, a beaming Tanya and a clearly keyed-up and ready to rock Gail leading the Gorman brothers onstage. Chris took his stool and kicked into the galloping drumbeat of the breathless, spooky “Dusted”. And we were on our way, or so we thought…

Immediately we could hear – or NOT hear, as the case may be – that something was seriously amiss with the mix. It was awful, with bass and drum not so much dominating, as being pretty much the only instruments coming through our stage left speakers. Very little guitar and hardly any voice, it was drum dominated and echoey, like a bad wedding band or an acoustic act playing inside a steel tube. Despite a few shouts for more guitar, the band ploughed on, Gail throwing low-slung Ramone-like rock poses and starting some rock clapping for “Gepetto”, but the sound remained bass-and-drums only for 4 or 5 numbers, the frustration made worse by Tanya’s propensity to come off-mic for the higher and more powerful notes.

The band finally paused to introduce new number “Punish”, and a very loud voiced punter behind us finally got the message through. Following some queries to the mixing desk, it was apparent that only the stage-left speakers were affected (onstage monitors must’ve been fine, hence the band ploughing on, and Rich advised afterwards it sounded fine from his spot). A bit of debate as to what to do (Gail suggested, “everyone shift this way [stage right], this is where the cool kids are!” then jokingly remarked, “free t-shirts for everyone!”), whether to take a planned intermission early or carry on and hope the problem was fixable, resulted in the band deciding to continue their, “bass and drum jam”…

Thankfully midway through “Punish”, the speakers kicked in, although they were intermittent for a while and the guitar remained very understated in the mix throughout, largely affecting the faster, rockier numbers. A disappointing situation was however largely averted by the band’s good humour; a setback so early into their nascent reunion might’ve turned sour, but Tanya’s open, smiling demeanour and guitarist Tom’s and particularly Gail’s humorous interplay made the situation more palatable, so well done to them for that!

To be fair, they also played some great music; “Judas My Heart” was a brooding slice of acoustic truckstop Americana with some lovely harmonies and snippets from “She Loves You”; “The Bees” was stripped back and spooky, mysterious and kooky; and whilst “Slow Dog” galloped along pleasantly enough but lacked requisite guitar oomph to complement the militaristic choral drum pattern, “”Full Moon, Empty Heart” was the best sounding number of the first set, Tanya holding the opening “Sleeeeeeeeeep!!!!” note comfortably and performing some luscious vocal gymnastics at the song’s denouement. Then, after a short intermission, set 2 eased in with a touching acoustic “Untogether”, then took a similar pattern to the first set, with the slower numbers the better sounding, punchier and rockier numbers lacking a bit of beef, but the band’s winning humour and positive attitude winning through. “We’re bound to fuck this one up, so give us some cover!” they begged before the buoyant “Feed The Tree”, which actually held up very well (the guitar sound being generally submerged for this one anyway), Tanya giving her best vocal performance of the night, decisive and authoritative. Newie “Comet” and “Spaceman” drifted lazily in a Summery vibe, whilst “Low Red Moon” was a set highlight, creepy and deliciously stark, and received a lengthy ovation. A discordant “Super Connected” closed out an enthusiastically received set which could have sounded a whole lot better, but was rescued overall from complete mix disaster by the band’s attitude and strength of character. Well done!

After stripped back encore “Thief” and some gushing yet sincere praise from the band, I hit the front, prying a setlist from a patient roadie and inevitably running into Devizes friend Alfie down there. Then, after meeting the crew and walking up the hill to the car park, and before an M32 roadworks-delayed drive home, I was accosted by some girls who remembered me from those 90’s Level 3 nights (which they doubtless spent running for cover from my mad dancing!), and paid me a nice compliment, “you used to be a lot older than us then, but you're the same age as us now!” A suitably odd and entertaining way to conclude an odd and entertaining evening!

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