TREMBLING BELLS / THE HALCYONS / THE ROUNDHEELS / MATT WINKWORTH, 3RD OCTOBER 2009, OXFORD JERICHO TAVERN
The Rules decree that singer-songwriters should be tedious drips who believe that listlessly strumming a guitar and moaning about something or other at the same time makes them the natural and inevitable heir to Bob Dylan. Thankfully, for Matt Winkworth, the Rules are made to be broken. Your average common-or-garden singer-songwriter he is not, channelling the (melo)dramatic flourish of Rufus Wainwright into a performance that takes in a song written from the perspective of A Midsummer Night's Dream's Puck and a tribute to tragic Eurotrash star Lola Ferrari which succeeds in being as poignant as it is witty, before wrapping up with a cover of Burt Bacharach's 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'.
Also making very good use of other people's songs amongst their own are folky types The Roundheels - tonight a stripped-down twosome of guitarist and vocalist, although some additional assistance is provided on mandolin and slide guitar by members of The Marmadukes. There's a nagging feeling that they're the sort of act who could be found performing in any number of pubs on a Saturday night (indeed their next gig is at the Malmaison), but justice is nevertheless very much done to dark material including Nina Simone's version of 'Black Is The Color (Of My True Love's Hair)' and Neko Case's 'Make Your Bed'.
At least one member of The Halcyons, keyboard player Colin Mackinnon, writes for the OxfordBands.com site, so he must be used to the difficulty (if not outright impossibility) of being positive or saying at least something constructive in certain reviews. As such, he might be feeling my pain right now. His band won't be responsible for me remembering this as a halcyon evening - let's just leave it there, shall we?
Trembling Bells: the name seems to say it all. Not Howling Bells - not desperate, full of fury or anguish. No, Trembling - nervous, quaking, trepidatious. As they shuffle uncomfortably before a crowd considerably thinner than it was half an hour earlier and begin a song called 'Adieu England', I conclude that perhaps they've bid adieu to their native Glasgow rather sooner than was sensible and would have been better off honing their art at home for a while longer. Certainly their stage presence is non-existent, the drums seem too loud and obtrusive, and I'm struggling to find much to admire in their rambling folk-country (and even less to like). Worse still, two friends confess the need to escape outside to the smoking balcony before the singer's nails-down-blackboard voice drives them to murder.
So it comes as something of a major surprise to learn that not only have the quartet been talked about in excited tones by those in the know, but that two members of the band (at least) have significant form. Alex Neilson is a much-feted drummer who's played with Bonnie "Prince" Billie, Alasdair Roberts and Six Organs Of Admittance amongst others, while vocalist Lavinia Blackwall was part of his Directing Hand free jazz project.
Thing is, though, I came across Directing Hand at Greenman two years ago, accused them of "just taking the piss" and agreed with a barman that Blackwall sounded like "'cats in a bag in the river'". And, personally speaking at least, Trembling Bells are hardly any better.