Tom Gilhespy

10:59 12th September 2006
Are the Howling Bells the hardest working band in show business? Taking a look at their schedule since they released their debut album a few months ago, you might reasonably hope so. They’ve played countless gigs around the UK (Juanita Stein, their lead singer, has estimated some two million, which is perhaps a slight exaggeration), as well as a decent handful of festivals. And now, just when you Europeans might think they’re taking a bit of a holiday, they’re back home in Australia. For their second tour in three months.

Then they’ll break their return trip to the UK with gigs in New Zealand and Los Angeles, and arrive back in London for more dates in October. By which time you can expect them either to be as hot as sand underfoot during an Australian heatwave, or completely, utterly exhausted. Maybe both.

Over here, they’re known not just as the Howling Bells but also as the band that used to be Waikiki, and they have the shouted-out requests to prove it. These are politely declined and what we get is a short set comprised mainly of tracks from the new album. No surprises there then. But what is a surprise (since Adelaide missed out on that last tour) is just how good the new material is. Waikiki and the Howling Bells might be only one member different, and may even share some songs (apparently ‘The Night Is Young’ was road-tested before the change) but they are not the same band.

The evenness of the set makes it difficult to identify highlights – there isn’t a weak song to be heard – but a few suggest themselves. ‘Velvet Girl’, four or five in, is the number that finally puts any lonely, lingering doubts to rest; ‘Low Happening’ would have to be the best song they’ve written so far and is saved for last; ‘I’m Not Afraid’ is the solitary encore.

Tonight, then, the Howling Bells are good. They’ve got fantastic material and a good singer. They certainly know how to play. They’ve got the looks and the moves – though some of these seem a little overdone – and they’ve got plenty of talent. But they’re also a little disappointing. They aren’t yet a brilliant live band, falling a notch or two short of that: reaching out and grabbing their audience isn’t currently part of their skill set. The crowd here is impressed, but not exhilarated. Our toes don’t tingle.

Don’t expect such a failing to last much longer. A fair part of this tour sees the Howling Bells supporting Placebo – five gigs in six days – in front of much bigger crowds than the 250 or so packed into Jive. A little audience indifference might be just what they need to help them take that one last step and learn how to drag their listeners in. This is a band that’s ready to pop; let’s hope that they do.