UK record label Bella Union, now in their 13th year are one of the most recognised independent labels going, not least for their discovery of Fleet Foxes which earned the label its first Platinum record, but also for their impeccable roster of artists ranging from the highly acclaimed Andrew Bird and Explosions in the Sky, to the lesser known likes of their new recruits exposed at their Evening at Union Chapel: Alessi’s Ark, Lone Wolf, Mountain Man and John Grant of The Czars. The intimate setting of the grade II listed building in Islington provided stellar acoustics for the folk artists performing and a humble and unpretentious atmosphere akin to the musicians and audience gathered.
Aside from signing a record deal on the eve of her 17th birthday, London’s Alessi’s Ark has achieved a fair amount over the past three years. She worked on her debut Notes From the Treehouse with her idol Mike Mogis, whose production style is as crisp as on Bright Eyes I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. Doing her round of the London folk scene at nights such as the much praised Communion, hosted at the Notting Hill Arts Club, she impressed last week on the last of her own shows before embarking on a tour in support of Laura Marling.
Next up was Paul Marshall, who in 2007 released his debut Vultures under his given name. As lycanthropy would have it he shed his flesh and sprouted fangs for his performance and follow-up LP released under the moniker Lone Wolf and entitled The Devil & I. Accompanied by a three-piece band his performance was an intricately arranged yet loud affair full of a pleasant unawareness of his brilliance as a lyricist. Certainly one to listen out for.
The highlight of the evening was; without doubt; Mountain Man, a group of three girls who sing in an Appalachian refrain. Meeting at Bennington College, Vermont they began exchanging songs and talents; teaching one another until they formed a united voice steeped in traditional American folk. With huge amounts of media attention from the likes of The Guardian and The Observer in recent weeks these sentiments were reiterated in a captivating expounding of joint talent. Their sounds encompass all that is natural and pure: love for people, land and sea, plants and animals – all projected with their three voices melding into “a creature growing from the mouths of” Mountain Man’s members: Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath. The songs are an all encompassing nostalgic intensity on nature amongst other things: their sounds may be of the past but their words are definitely of the present.
Their performance was like watching a high school talent contest with their improvised approach which usually involved a short quip about who should begin the round of songs: “you start first”, “no you go”. Like a conversation back and forth their hymnal chanting had both a haunting and charming resonance, and track “Babylon”, both vocally and lyrically, as close to a modern day hymn as one might get. Singing unmiced accentuated the humble, at times spiritual, talents of the girls rendering them far superior to other performers in spite of their vocals-only set up, accompanied only two or three times by the occasional guitar. Standout tracks included Don Redman’s “How’m I Doin’?”, “Soft Skin” and “Sewee Sewee”.
Unhindered by a shortened set headliner John Grant’s piano balladry was one part Jackson Browne’s vocals, another part sentimental satire bringing to mind the likes of Broken Family Band lyrically, but with a substance far more hard hitting such that we were left unsure whether to laugh out at his wry observations and confessions or just smile quietly to ourselves. His honesty in what he purports always teetering deftly between self indulgence and self deprecation; darkly comic and tragically sad: “my self esteem is receding like my hair line” shed light on his troubled and chaotic past which is frequently referenced in many of his tracks: certainly in lyrics such as “you are like a drug to me” referencing his drug addiction and recent stint in rehab. The full band support at times smothered Grant’s vocals but on the whole softened the blow of his harsh realisations with swirling piano chords. “It’s Easier”, “TC and Honeybear” and “Caramel” however were the standouts proving the marriage between band and artist were, in these moments, a perfect union.
Hats off to Bella Union for a diverse evening of music; with the beautiful union chapel as the setting and a beautiful “bella” union of talent at its core.
An Evening with Bella Union took place at Union Chapel on 24th June 2010
All photos by Michael Farrant (all rights reserved)