The Bonnie Bells of Oxford is a slightly confusing new-ish release from Tin Angel. It presents nine tracks recorded live at The Bullingdon Arms, Oxford on 4th May 2012, one of the dates on a short tour for which the wonderful Glasgow band Trembling Bells teamed up onstage with Bonnie “Prince” Billy (singer-songwriter Will Oldham) to promote their just-released joint album The Marble Downs. This was part of an ongoing teaming of those kindred creative spirits, two elemental musical forces from the world of contemporary folk-rock. The seeds of this collaboration had been sown a number of years earlier, in around 2005, when Oldham and Trembling Bells drummer Alex Neilson had met while working with Alasdair Roberts on his No Earthly Man album, and quickly discovered they had a lot in common artistically. The Marble Downs finally appeared in the spring of 2012, and a majority of its tracks were showcased on that tour. Only four of them appear on this release, however – so I did some digging around and discovered that back in 2013 the band had released a download of eleven tracks recorded on ostensibly the same date of the tour, these containing two additional tracks (Ain’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing and Everytime I Close My Eyes), live versions of songs from the studio album that seem to have been edited out of the set on the current Tin Angel release. Unless I’m mistaken, and the two releases are sourced from different gigs? Either way, curious…
Whatever, Bonnie Bells Of Oxford finds the participants in splendid live form, with the honest, if a touch opaquely textured recording capturing all the ragged energy of the gig and in doing so stressing the complementary nature of the collaboration, with the band and Oldham more or less sharing the honours both compositionally and vocally. The rough-hewn joy and togetherness of the performance is apparent from the Rainbow/Jolly opening salvo, with tumbling restless drums, blazing organ and searing electric guitar ushering in Oldham’s composition with its timeless, haunting Jim Morrison-like melody and a lyric that develops into a communal chant before the swooning majesty of the guitar solo. Goat And Ram brings another instance of Oldham’s vulnerable yet strong vocal personality, with Lavinia joining the fray later, all against thundering, crashing fuzz guitar chords and an ominously measured pace. The odd-song-out comes next – Lavinia’s knowingly saucy a cappella take on the traditional My Husband (’s Got No Courage In Him), succeeded (as on The Marble Downs) by Oldham’s traditional-sounding call-and-response Riding. Oldham’s more frail vocal side returns on the gentler, piano-driven Excursions Into Assonance, which is contrasted with the following come-on duet So Everyone (Sees Me). Neilson’s country-flavoured opus Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart then bounds in on a jaunty, upbeat strummed rhythm, then takes a curveball psych-out guitar solo before its final tempo change and pop-style finish. Oldham’s organ-backed ballad All Gone, All Gone feels more like an interlude, although the restless signature drumming keeps our interest. The penultimate selection is a delicious romp, with Neilson’s letting-the-hair-down hoedown (You’re On The) Bottom, morphing by way of Oldham’s jittery gospeller There Is No God into an authentic, affectionate drunken-barroom cover of the classic Merle Haggard melancholy honky-tonker Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down. The set then closes out on the deceptively sweet and poetic “as I rode out” tale of Love Is A Velvet Noose, which charms in a strangely folk-baroque manner before providing the obligatory “thanks/credits” mechanism (the inclusion of Muldoon’s Picnic in the litany rather betrays the set’s incompleteness and makes me wonder just how much else was omitted from this release.
Despite this, the music within is great, as is the sense of atmosphere, the live chemistry and total involvement of all concerned. It’s still a compelling and exciting audio document with a desirable “wish I’d been there” vibe.
The Bonnie Bells of Oxford is Out Now