Photos by Sarah Dorman

This show was envisaged as a meeting between the past and present of British folk music, and promised to recap the collaboration between Mike Heron and Trembling Bells which first took place at the Stewart Lee Austerity Binge on the South Bank back in May. Tonight's venue, The Vortex Jazz Club, is more intimate and is completely sold out.

Support act John Stammers plays a fairly pleasant set of acoustic folk which is well received, but it's obvious most of this audience is here to see one of the founding members of the Incredible String Band, Mike Heron. Details are a little sketchy about tonight's running order, and although Heron is the headliner he takes the stage first.

Initially he is joined by his daughter Georgia Seddon on keyboards and vocals, with Mark from Trembling Bells and multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn (recently seen on Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and fresh from accompanying Rich Hall at the Edinburgh Festival) filling out the sound on a variety of stringed instruments. I am not familiar enough with Heron’s work to give an exact breakdown of what he played but he certainly pleased the crowd straight away by opening with a fine version of the Incredible String Band's Chinese White. Perhaps his voice isn’t as strong as in the 1960s and 70s, but he is obviously enjoying himself and I have to say he looks remarkably well for a 68 year old!

The ensemble move away from straight forward guitar and fiddle arrangements when they perform one piece with Mark on tin whistle, whilst the others sing in close harmony. Heron’s daughter Georgia is a solo artist in her own right and she performs her own song Paths, then they all revisit the ISB songbook for Painting Box, which again gets a huge reaction from the crowd.

For the rest of the set they are joined by the Scottish electronic musician Frogpocket, who is apparently signed to Mike Paradinas’s label Planet Mu, but in this role he mainly plays additional violin.

Soon after this the rest of Trembling Bells join in, performing one song completely a capella and culminating in an epic and expansive A Very Cellular Song complete with kazoos, which is met with a standing ovation.

Heron urges the audience to stick around for Trembling Bells, although he does warn them that they will be loud. As if to lull the audience in, the Bells start with a lovely a cappella tune. However, the tone for the rest of the set is established with Just As A Rainbow with its overdriven guitars, Alex Neilsen's free-jazz drumming and Lavinia Blackwall's soaring vocals. Two more songs in the same vein follow and it appears that the crowd has thinned a little, although those who are left are certainly very appreciative of what Trembling Bells are doing.

They take the folk roots and influence of the Incredible String Band and other early British folk music and combine it with all sorts of rock elements. Some of their interplay between the noise-guitar parts and improvised drumming takes them close to post-rock. Colour of Night from the recent album shows that they can take traditional folk melodies and work with them into a good pop song. Ain't Nothing Wrong with a Little Longing features a catchy prog-rock keyboard riff. Lavinia's strong soprano soars through the heavier arrangements on their recordings, though the Vortex’s mix doesn’t quite get the balance right and her voice does get a bit buried at times.

They play a good few tunes from the recent album The Constant Pageant, as well as a new song and two contrasting covers.

Their powerful version of Robin Gibb's Lord Bless All is moody atmospheric, dark and sinister and about as far from the Bee Gees in terms of arrangement as you can get, whilst a brave attempt at Scott Walker's Duchess proves to be a bit of an audience favourite. They close with a great version of Goathland from the recent album. Trembling Bells manage to mess with convention whilst upholding tradition, and I reckon they won a few new fans tonight.

Mike Heron

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