Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London 15/02/11
The rain makes London an incredibly depressing place. Smiles disappear from people's faces, they hunch up, shielding themselves from the outside world with umbrellas and raincoats, the eponymous 'grey suits' become all-pervading. Add this to the fact that I had left my phone at home, so not only I was I suffering from severe twitter-withdrawal, but I was unable to use Google Maps to direct myself to the venue, and it's unsurprising that I was in a pretty bad mood by the time I arrived at Shepherd's Bush Empire. To top it all off, my shoes had started leaking, and there are few things more unpleasant than soggy socks (although Rule 34 dictates that someone, somewhere, is in to that sort of thing). Luckily, tonight's line up was designed to sooth even the most tortured soul, and mine was only lightly bruised.
As Sea Of Bees took to the stage, I realised that at the very least tonight I'd be able to say I'd seen them before anyone knew who they were, as although all of three people applauded when they came on, no-one really paid that much attention to begin with - I think most people were fairly astounded when they went on to play a wonderful set, and the applause that greeted the end of their first song was a great deal more appreciative.
I imagine much has already been made of the incongruity between lead singer Jules' voice and her appearance, and I hate gender stereotyping probably more than I hate any other sort of stereotyping, so I'm not going to dwell on it any further here. I will say that her voice reminded me a great deal of CocoRosie, who I have liked for many years now, although for some reason I've never entirely clicked with their music style.
If I had to criticise Sea Of Bees, I'd say that Jules showed signs of wanting to give more to the music than the soft, soulful songs would really support; it takes an awful lot of skill to imbue music like theirs with intense passion and though she obviously feels the emotion, the marriage between that and the sound is not quite there yet. Perhaps it will come as they become more experienced performers, which I expect will also mark a shift in their between-song-banter which at the moment is very chatty, more 'friend-to-friend' than 'performer-to-crowd' - which might work better in a small venue but felt slightly awkward tonight.
They finished their set with a beautiful solo number which made me want to grab and shake all of the people who were just now arriving. filtering into the back of the venue, trying to weave their way to the front, buying drinks at the bar, chatting loudly with their friends and generally being annoying as hell. Unfortunately, I couldn't grab and shake them all without contributing to the overall noise level, so they went unmolested and managed to leach all of the emotion out of the song. However, Sea of Bees are definitely one to keep an eye on and I'd love to see them in a smaller venue.
By the time Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan took to the stage, the crowd was significantly bigger and a good deal more receptive. They played their opener, 'You Die And See Beauty Reign', to total awed silence, before immediately launching into the more upbeat 'You Won't Let Me Down Again' (the two opening tracks from their 2010 album Hawk). Something I've always loved about Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan is their ability to seamlessly blend soul, country, folk, blues and probably a whole heap of other genres and turn out an incredibly diverse album that nevertheless hangs together perfectly. Their live performance was no exception to this, and the crowd remained captivated for the duration.
Isobel Campbell has that rare quality to her voice which allows it to be breathy without ever seem affected or annoying; something that's far better showcased in her work with Mark Lanegan than it ever was in Belle & Sebastian. Her voice contrasts beautifully with Lanegan's gravelly drawl, and together they create something truly ethereal, made all the more atmospheric when heard alongside a pedal steel guitar (seriously, is there any better instrument anywhere?).
I only really know Ballad Of Broken Seas by them; I did try and get into Sunday At Devil Dirt, but it's always hard, when your first exposure to a band leaves you speechless with wonder, to listen to anything other than the album which first gave you that feeling. However, this in no way diminished my enjoyment of their set, as each song is so exquisitely crafted, and this sort of 'forced' exposure is a great way to really immerse yourself in a band's back catalogue; something I will be purchasing the instant I get home. They did, however, play 'The Circus Is Leaving Town', which is my absolute favourite song from Ballad Of Broken Seas (except, of course, when it isn't, you'll know what I mean if you've ever loved an album as an entity in itself as much as you love each individual track). Another highlight was 'Back Burner', a smoky, back-alley jazz club number that was almost unbearable in its sensuality.
Campbell and Lanegan didn't talk at all between songs, normally something that annoys me, but tonight I was grateful to them for that; any words, any hint of awareness that they were playing for the crowd and not simply for the pure, unadulterated joy of it, anything that brought a sense of reality into that room would have spoiled the experience irrevocably; for me, and for everyone else there who was utterly silent, entirely spellbound by the spectacle occurring in front of them.
I feel I must point out, at this stage, that it takes incredible skill to have a whole drum-kit at your disposal (plus added percussion) and yet exercise the amount of restraint their drummer was in using it solely to emphasise and accompany the melodies where necessary. You barely even noticed there was a drummer, for the most part, but you'd definitely have noticed the gap if he hadn't been there.
The penultimate song from their set, 'Come On Over (Turn Me On)' was the first song that evening to involve a piano, another example of perfect instrumental placing. The song itself was indescribable. I want to have sex to it. No, scratch that, I want to have sex with it. Have a listen and you'll understand what I mean. It's beauty and lust and danger and excitement all rolled into one. Little Willie John would listen to this song and weep at the unfairness of it all.
Now, you wouldn't have thought that Campbell and Lanegan's music was the type that leaves crowds baying for an encore as they leave the stage, but somehow they managed it: finishing on 'Get Behind Me', a wonderful old-school rock and roll number, no doubt helped. Returning to the stage, they played a heartstoppingly beautiful version of 'Revolver', much slower than it appears on the album, which really gave the music time to breathe. They followed that with an equally heart-stopping and beautiful rendition of '(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me' which almost had me in tears.
Their final song of the night was an astounding performance of 'Ramblin' Man' and I was at a total loss, once they had left the stage and the applause had died down, to know how to properly process the evening. I was rendered utterly speechless by the effortless beauty, the transcendence of it all. They left the stage having not said a single word for 90 minutes, but they had changed my life. And I'm sure I wasn't the only person leaving the venue thinking that.Photos by Chris Mathews