Charming the trees from under the birds.
Bella Hardy, The Queens Hall, Edinburgh, May 1st 2015.
Bella Hardy arrived onstage band in tow, with newly coiffured short cut newly dyed blonde hair. It suited her but as she herself said later in the evening, it maybe wasn’t her smartest move, after all the promotional work for the new album featured the more familiar longer, darker haired Bella Hardy. I mean the hair was longer not….oh please yourself.
Having missed the last boat from the Grey Havens, choosing to stay behind for tonight’s gig, this exile from Lothlorien took a song to find her feet on the musical ground underfoot, but from the second song on she never missed a beat. Though she asked for a few “G’s” to keep the fiddle in tune ensuring we continued to get the best of her throughout. I’ve come to Bella Hardy only recently, very recently in fact. I’d heard her session on Mark Radcliffe’s Wednesday night Folk show on BBC Radio2 back in January and the weekend after had a ticket for tonight in my hand. Two weekends ago I bought “Songs Lost & Stolen” and last weekend I bought her new one, “With the Dawn” which this tour is supporting. Both placed me further under the spell the Radio2 session had cast.
I’d known the show would mostly feature songs from “With the Dawn” from the Twittering about the night before but when early on she announced a song from “Songs Lost & Stolen” I patted myself on the back for impeccable taste while thanking lucky stars for making that choice. To focus on “With the Dawn” first. Second song of the night was first song on the new album “The Only Thing To Do”. It put her in complete control of the room (and personally set me up nicely being able to recognise only the second song of the night) but I felt it kind of pointed to her being at a crossroads stylistically, he says with only two albums and only two weeks to have enjoyed them with, but I’ll elaborate on that later. This song was the first up-tempo number and is sure to become a regular crowd pleaser in years to come. It’s a strong way to start an album never mind a show being such a confident song. Lesser performers may have struggled for somewhere to go after making such a forthright opening statement. “The Herring Girl” (from “Songs Lost & Stolen”) is a stark tale of young girls alone at night and of rape averted only by murder in self-defence. It’s typical folk fare lyrically speaking but its live performance adds an extra dimension you miss on the cd. To listen to this woman sing this is one thing to see her perform it another. It was just one in a line of captivating performances.
From early on then she had the audience and the cabaret layout at the Queens Hall seemed suited to allowing the audience to be comfortably drawn in and willingly taken along with the performance. Another stand out moment was, I think, just before the interval with “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl that Loves a Soldier”. Coming from her work with “Songs For The Voiceless” a project telling some of the stories of World War I she set the scene vividly, as she did with “The Herring girl” and several other songs, placing them in historical context. Tales of “Nelly Spendlove” and “Maria Bochkareva’s“ Death battalion set the song apart. It was poignant and distressing and emotionally sentimental without descending into maudlin cliché. Musically this song was all about the drummer. Providing a quietly rolling disjointed cacophony he simulated with peaceful means the storms of more chaotic and violent times.
The second half of the show was where the overall highlight of the evening was. Bella gave us a duo of songs from “With The Dawn”. “Lullaby For A Grieving Man” and then “Gifts” were a pair of songs whose performance set the bar at a level that would only be overtaken at shows end. But here we have that moment I spoke of earlier about a stylistic crossroads. I have the feeling that with this new album Bella Hardy is at a point midway between Kate Rusby traditionalism and Sarah Mclachlan folk-rock commercialism in its most positive sense. I like both artists and I don’t see why she can’t ride the waves in between so long as she remains as sure footed and brave as she has been on this record.
Of course like all singers and songwriters it all hangs on the quality of the performance whether live or recorded, but especially live. This voice that had me in thrall this evening was one of those not just for the ears to hear but for the soul to absorb and capture as a rich feast of words and notes. She has the trademark flattened vowels of her native Derbyshire but a simultaneous purity of tone that at times soars among the rafters. And then all too soon we have the encore and this charm must soon end.
The very final song of the night was a rousing bluegrass sounding number that painted a picture reminiscent of “Alison Krauss and Union Station”. This echo of “Appalachian” folk coming home left the warm glow every performer would like to leave the crowd with. However, personally as good as it was I felt the true ending was one song earlier. I forget the name of the song, I was too entranced to remember to remember anything but she stepped in front of the mic and sang to the Queens Hall as well as the people there a capella and off mic. Lighting perfectly narrowed to a head and shoulders glow it drew me to a pinpoint of rapt concentration at evenings end. The following number felt like I was being drawn into a new paragraph after the full stop had been so roundly and beautifully drawn.
But that is, in the bigger picture of the night as a whole, a mere trifle. The birds at the end would still have been singing just like the hearts of everyone there, and it would have been just as well they were winged, as the trees had been charmed from beneath them from the very beginning.
© Jim Laing 2015.