I have been in love with the Howling Bells since their 2006 self titled debut. A wonderful album.
For some unknown circumstances, astral coincidences, Pluto’s role or simply a quite busy schedule I missed all their concerts in the last three years with the single exception of a thirty minutes slot in a side stage of a festival. Not enough.
I am quite excited for this London appearance. They are presenting for the first time the new material from the highly expected (by me at least), Radio Waves, the second LP.
I am a bit worried too. They left the coolest UK label, Bella Union, home of Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Explosions in the Sky and the Dirty Three just to name a few, for Independiente record who host… erm… Travis, Gomez and Embrace.
Worse, a quick visit to their myspace to listen to the new single Into The Chaos makes me realize those sumptuous guitar songs of the beginning left space to an upbeat pop tune floating on a synth-etic sea.
Challenging a freezing rainstorm I arrive to the Islington Academy well covered by all my prejudices.
It’s early, I cannot do much more than waiting impatiently. Chatting over a Guinnes with a friend I learn about D.A.F. german electro-punk. He just read a poster saying they play Islington Academy at the end of March. I don’t know them. I don’t digest any meal with some kind of “electro” starter. The last famous words, be ready.
Juanita Stein leads the band to the stage. She competes with The Long Blondes’ Kate Jackson for the sexiest, foxiest role of the indie scene. It is her voice, a sort of PJ Harvey that discovered sensuality after a long psychotherapy, to make the “Howling Belle” win my personal poll with “the long brunette”.
Ms Stein dark magnetism is the essence of this night. Photographing Ms Jackson was much easier, though.
The concert opens with Blessed Night I hope it is a premonitory title, it will not.
Cities Burning Down follows, musically is the closest thing to a 80s U2 song I heard in ages. In the positive sense.
Tresure Hunt opens the upcoming album. I am busy following Juanita eyelashes and irritated by guitarist’s back vocals to get distracted, the song passes without leaving any sign.
The security must be distracted by her too. The fourth song starts and we are left shooting in the pit. It is Wishing Stone, from the debut. A song that would have closed the best side A of a 12” vinyl, if that vinyl had ever been pressed.
So far not so good. The band looks a bit tired (just back from Australia), nervous (first gig in London for a long time), insecure (new songs being played for the first time).
Some good reason, I am still optimistic. The concert is entering is core, I hope this ping-pong of new-old songs will warm up the atmosphere. I have never been so wrong.
I understand the setlist of a gig promoting a new album is mainly based on new material, but 6 new songs in a row in the middle of the set is a bit too much.
The sequence Nightingale, Let’s Be Kids, Digital Hearts, It ain’t you, Radio Wars theme, Miss Bell Song one after the other doesn’t catch me. Some are better than other, overall they sound more upbeat, more pop-ish than the oldies.
Joel Stein (the guitarist is in a no-night) is distracted by his own myths. He plays the guitar with a bow, he plays another 12 strings guitar that look as the Beatle-Höfner-bass but his mind seems to be somewhere else.
He moves to the keyboards. I move upstair to the balcony. Coincidences.
There is a beautiful view onto the stage from there, which includes a surprise.
My friend notices the presence of some yellow post-it on the keyboard keys. What the fuck?!
In a while I see Mr Stein fingers looking for the post-it to play the right notes.
In a Proustian reverie I remember myself looking at the numbers on the keys of my toy organ I got for Christmas 3 decades ago. I feel embarrassed for him.
At the end of the endless list of new song, at last, arrives on stage a goldie… hand in hand with a wave of bad luck.
Setting Sun would be a perfect song, if Juanita’s guitar worked. It doesn’t. She changes it, start again, five more seconds and the new guitar strap fails. It isn’t fixed!
Plause to her nerves. She fixes it, she plays it, she sings as she knows. I am thrilled by the peak of the night. The best song out of a tense moment. (My) Howling Bells are back and I hope to be pleased by a glorious ending.
In vain. Glenn Moule, the drummer, leaves his kit to reach the second synth on stage. He pushes a button and a drum machine takes his place so he can dedicate to the keys.
Golden Web is the most annoying song I have listened to in 2009. As annoying as My Morning Jacket’s Highly Suspicious. That topped 2008 annoying chart. This ranks high for 2009, I know it’s just early february but it’ll be difficult to match that.
Golden Web is even more annoying, because it comes from a band I (used to) love so much. Immensely annoying because I waited three years to listen to something new to get some plastic-pop, electro-wave, synth-whatever, call it as you like, it is annoying.
The trick to sandwich Golden Web between Setting Sun and the wonderful Low Happiness, which came next, doesn’t work. It does not for the same reason you wouldn’t like a sandwich made with two slices of the best bread with no filling in it.
Into the Chaos closes the main set. I must admit, live it is better than the myspace version. My pre-concert doubts vanish, this is probably the best song of the new era and would be better without the back ch-oh-oh-oh-oh-rus. It wins my prejudice, but the rest is a problem.
I have read the setlist so I know there is one song left for the encore. I also remember the title: Toxic.
What I didn’t (want to) know is that it is the cover of the Britney Spears’ hit.
What the fuck?! (Reprise).
If I didn’t want to accept that the Howling Bells are turning into pop, drum machine and the trendy synth that is the must-have bit of any record issued this year, after this song I could not escape.
They’ll found new fans because some press will love it, they love Lady Gaga after all.
My friend following the cover tells me he missed Britney. I simply missed the Howling Bells.
I had never been to the Islington Academy before.
I will definitely check its “What’s Up” page in the future because this is one of the best kept-secret venues in London.
The smaller of the once-Carling-now-O2 circuit, joined to Brixton Academy, Sheperd Bush Empire and something else, Islington Academy is a cosy place hidden in a shopping mall just off Angel tube station.
Built on two levels it is nice and neat as only simple things can be.
The lower floor is a classic concert space hosting a bar and few hundreds people. On the balcony upstair you can relax on the many sofas, (chat about D.A.F. on a Guinnes), and have a wonderful view over the stage.
It remembered me a tiny version of the (R.I.P.) Astoria.
From up there the perspective on the band is brilliant. Unfortunately upstairs the acoustic is not as good as downstair.
From a photographic perspective the pit is small but there is one, which is nice for such a venue size.
The stage is quite high which gives the images an angled perspective that you can minimize using longer lenses or emphasize with wider angles.
The lights tonight were not very good but I am convinced that the lights are up to the band settings more than a venue thing. Correct me if I am wrong.
Unfortunately I didn’t take B&W shots from the balcony because I finished all my films on Juanita’s close-ups but if you bring a medium telephoto lens you can get a very nice angle from there. A long telephoto would isolate the artist for some very unusual shots.
My pocket digital camera provided to be a handy gadget. It gives you an idea of what I am talking and its sharp lens implacably recorded those yellow post-it on the keyboards keys.