Bear’s Den hit Birmingham in support of their latest long-player; Blue Hours.
Well, my gob is well and truly smacked, a phrase I loathe but I cannot think of one any better for this barnstorming belter of a show. Hot on the heels on new release, Blue Hours, which we reviewed here, concerns were then raised as to whether this would be as minimalist as that lockdown album, or whether the expanded band would be present to remodel the sometimes stark material. As the lights dimmed, and dry ice billowed, it was, initially, hard to tell, peering through the murk. Sure, the core Den themselves, the burly and bearded Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones were there, as was the reliable presence of near constant right hand man, Christof Van der Ven, actually to their right. A drum kit was just about discernible and a shadowy figure in the dark, behind Van der Ven, loomed mysteriously.
The barest of greetings, Birmingham, and they began, opening with the title track from the new album, Blue Hours. Jones was on bass, Davie electric guitar, with Van der Ven toting a nice resonator guitar. Harry Mundy, aka Mr moody and mysterious, had a further guitar, and the figure of Jools Owen was now evident at his kit, recognisable from his extravagant whiskers. This an important sign, confirming the expectations of trumpet. The song seemed, as hoped, to carry a more organic feel than on the album, and relief was sensed by a sigh. Straight off, then, into Red Earth and Pouring Rain, the bass moving to Mundy and Jones now playing electric guitar. A strident and vibrant song, this was just what the enthusiastic audience, surely a sell out, were craving. Davie has a very distinctive voice and takes lead vocals throughout. Simultaneously fragile and strong, he oozes an empathic pathos, the lyrics unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. Death and dementia are more likely to figure in their earnest and sensitive songs, rather any moons in June or dalliances in Dallas
Mixing songs from across their five albums, it became apparent there was another figure present, with a keyboard and, o joy, what I now know is a tenor horn: sounds like a trumpet and looks like a small euphonium. Marcus Hamblett, for it is he, was on duty, the last of the key integers that have made up the live band these past years, and who had been present when they played Nottingham in 2019, my first live exposure to the band. (There was also, I spotted tonight, on occasion, a further figure, almost offstage on yet another guitar, acoustic.) One of the feature pieces of this band is when they unplug all their instruments and move away from the microphones. With just acoustic guitars and brass, this is how they played Sophie, to a silent and awestruck audience. No matter how often they do this, it is still astonishing and inspiring in equal parts.
The next highpoint came as Jones moved back to a hitherto unseen piano, for the opening track of Blue Hours, New Day, this adding a new flavour to the range of sounds and options available thus far. Again, the song seemed much warmer than on record, bedding in nicely now with the older material. I should add, that, by this stage, at least four of those present had taken a turn on the bass, with guitars of all sizes, shapes and sorts being passed around as well. Owen had had opportunity, by now, to pick up his trumpet with his left hand, whilst a tambourine in the right gets thrashed around the kit, his legs pumping the pedals all the while. For me, the other essential signature sound of the band, along with the pastoral brass nuances, is when Van der Ven finds his banjo, picking out sensitive patterns. None of your bluegrass pizazz and chicanery, this is banjo in the Celtic sense, for melody rather than show, and I love it. This texture was especially moving and evident for Crow, a favourite from So That You Might Hear Me. Continuing the mix of old and new, Spiders, a highlight from the new record, came between The Love We Stole and Auld Wives, all seeming matched and belonging to each other. This is no small gift, as, on record, there have been distinct shifts in the thrust, from acoustic and folkie, to an almost 80s rock bombast and, for the new one, a muted electronica influence. Yet, here tonight, they were all strokes from the same brush. That’s clever, that is. To close came the anthemic Laurel Wreath, a fitting close, even if you weren’t sure they’d be called back. As I took a sneaky wee vid on my phone, on playback you can hear the audience clearly singing along, and my audible gasp of pleasure as the brass chimes in.
Of course they came back, with a trio of songs, including, in the middle, a reprise of unplugged and un-miked, with Gabriel. Closer closer was the opening track from their first full length release, the wondrous Agape, a song that offers a sort of essence of Bear’s Den. If you don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t like the band. I can assure you the 2000 souls there tonight did and do.
My mind blown and beaming like a fool, I wandered out and home, needing a drink to bring me down to earth and to be ready for my train. This was without doubt the best show I have witnessed in the last couple of years, perhaps a bit disingenuously, given the two years it has been. So, let me rephrase that, the best show since I saw them last, this one fractionally edging ahead for sheer feel good. And let me get one thing off my chest, that being the infernal way the band seem always to be lumped in with the leaden Mumford and Sons, if based on, initially, some shared management and appearances as support to them. I dare say there are those who haven’t dared investigate on the grounds of that taint. So, let me iterate: Bear’s Den are nothing like that band, give or take a banjo or two, played in a very different style. Remedy your prejudices and give them a go. Much as I like seeing them in venues this size, they should be at least the next rung up, the O2 Academy. Or, one day, Symphony Hall. I’d like to see them unplug and un-mike there!
Categories: Live Reviews