They may be as dark and brooding as a rainy day, but there’s always been an intriguing romanticism stirring within Howling Bells. The last time they were in Bristol Juanita Stein even gracefully accepted an audience member’s request and proposed, on his behalf, to his girlfriend. A perfect setting for love, yet so seductively menacing are the Bells, it’s hardly surprising the answer was positive after such an aphrodisiacal experience.
There’s no overt romance tonight, but the beguiling attraction is there all the same as Stein sumptuously pours her ice-pure vocals and tales of love and loss over the Bells’ burning immediacy. This intriguing mix of dark and joy is the ultimate attraction of Howling Bells. While the dustbowl ballads are so ethereal and gothic they’re hanging out for their own shoegazing road movie, the Bells never let them get too caught up in their own melancholy, preferring to deliver enough crunching respite to make the first few rows of the Academy hungry with energy, as well as love.
It’s a selfish mind that thinks how wonderful it is to still see Mercury Rev in such an intimate setting and not the cavernous arenas their legacy suggests. As images of Miller, Nico, Coltrane and Cohen flicker past on the screen, you wonder why they are not treated with the same hushed respect. Yet here they are again, on the back of another inspired record, the startling ‘Snowflake Midnight’, and we’re still fortunate to be so close as to see the glow in Jonathan Donahue’s eyes.
Typically, it’s that fragile, elegant frame that steals all glances tonight. From the moment Donahue walks onstage, clutching a bottle of red wine, for opener ‘Snowflake in a Hot World’, he effortlessly swallows up everything around him. A man that looks as if he holds the pains of the world square on his shoulders, but sees enough beauty to wear an ever-present, purposeful grin, he’s not shy in knowing how affective his slender moves are. During an exquisite ‘Tonite it Shows’ he even manages to replicate the passion and grace of the ballerina on the screen behind him, pirouetting about the stage, his arms as expressive as that endearing falsetto of his.
Still, as compelling as Donahue’s aesthetic is, its how that rapturous voice digs in to Mercury Rev’s own sparkling movements that are the true magic. And tonight they sparkle, exploring the underlying darkness as much as the splendour. So while we get glorious versions of ‘Opus 40’ and ‘Goddess on the Highway’, we also witness a more vibrant ‘Senses on Fire’ than features on ‘Snowflake Midnight’, and a version of Holes so enchanting it should really have its own dark forest to live in.
It’s ‘Dark Is Rising’ that takes all the plaudits tonight however. That over-looked classic from ‘All is Dream’, an album that was released on that fateful day of September 11. First it’s the blistering, deafening sound of the John Barry-style crescendos that strikes, rumbling through you with a ferocity that needs to be experienced to be believed. Then, it’s how Mercury Rev pull the song down from it’s bombastic heights and let Donahue’s pleading vocals take over, giving the piece such conviction. But it’s right at the crux of the song that moves you the most, Donahue proclaiming his strength through the last line, “I always dreamed I’d love you / I never dreamed I’d lose you / In my dreams, I’m always strong,” while stressing that last word by lifting those expressive arms and flexing his muscles with all his might until the song’s finish.