The Slaughtered Lamb is the chosen venue for the launch of Bella Hardy’s new album battlelan into the wider world. It’s actually been available for a couple of weeks, but this is the first opportunity available for Bella, the venue and as I’m very happy to discover on arrival, the combined diaries of the newly christened Midnight Watch. Yes this is Bella in five piece band mode, with the musicians who recorded the album all present and correct.
It’s a different approach for Bella whose previous albums have featured a number of guests, but this time settled on a fixed team of regular friends and collaborators as a fixed line up across all 11 tracks. It promises to be a real treat as given other demands the chance to bring the Midnight Watch together are likely to be realistically restricted to the more prestigious summer festivals going forward.
Mention must be made of support act for the evening, Rory Butler as the young Scot is in fine voice. His singing perhaps betrays a little of the slur of a younger John Martyn (before the tar and sandpaper transplant), who is perhaps his most obvious influence. Still, his guitar playing is excellent too, having a real percussive snap and dexterous, melodic syncopation. He warms to the task through an eight song set and seems to grow in confidence on the evidence of his banter between songs. His seven originals and version of James Taylor’s Machine Gun Kelly have the audience’s attention, silently absorbing every note with generous applause greeting each songs climax. He’s one to watch out for surely.
The room fills out for Bella and The Midnight Watch, including Mattie Foulds who produced battleplan on drums, take the stage. The plucked violin and the killer lines, “I’ve been loving you, like a soldier in the peacetime waiting for the war,” announces the opener for the album, Good Man’s Wife. Putting a female slant onto one of her favourite trad. songs, more commonly called The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies or The Seven Yellow Gipsies, is part of what makes battleplan unique. Her re-writes offer subtle clever changes where needed and perhaps demonstrates the folk-process as it always has been, i.e. the singer changing the song to suit their purpose.
Bella and The Midnight Watch work through the album in sequence, with a couple of interludes referring back to Songs Lost & Stolen. As Bella points out she spends hours agonising over the track sequence of a CD, so it seems sensible and economical to use that process to write the set list at the same time. But in the live setting it still feels fresh and works really well maintaining a momentum, through dynamic gear shifts and the natural change in tempo of the songs. Whilst using the band has created her most consistent work to date, the different approaches to the arrangements are probably more acute in the live setting.
There is extra power and swing to The Midnight Watch, who get downright funky in places – notably on Whisky You’re The Devil – as Mattie and bassist, James Lindsay lock tight. Angus Lyon’s keyboard work deserves special mention, especially on this song, where the Fender Rhodes tonality, adds spectacularly to the groove. He’ll switch to accordion too, perhaps his more familiar role when partnering Bella. With Anna Massie’s skilful guitar also a familiar fixture of previous live shows, tonight she seems in her element in the bigger band.
Bella too is in very strong voice and if the overall sound is perhaps not quite as luxuriant as the CD, which really is the best Bella ever sounded, there is more than adequate compensation in the heightened drama. Bella really commands these songs bringing the characters and stories to life. There are a couple of real heartbreakers amongst them, her own Three Pieces Of My Heart and the trad. True Hearted Girl, the latter again showing the subtle makeover that Bella has brought to battleplan.
With Herring Girl, surely one of the modern folk song greats, Labyrinth and Walk It With You, all from Songs Lost & Stolen, dropped into the set. This is a hugely enjoyable evening. The last of those is the evening’s encore Bella seems to be in great spirits, telling us “It’s great to be here on what must be the most beautiful day of the year, although I presume every day is like this in London.” Someone shouts back, “Only because you’re here.” On the strength of this performance, they may well have a point.
Review by: Simon Holland
Order the album via Amazon
For details of Bella’s gigs and festival appearances this year visit her website here: www.bellahardy.com