Tony Blair is still Prime Minister, Gnarls Barkley is going crazy in the charts and The Sopranos is the latest telly fix. Meanwhile, an Aussie indie rock combo has released their debut album.
Howling Bells eponymous debut was launched on the world in the spring of 2006 – a different time, an age when lazy label executives still mined MySpace for the next big thing and Bebo was getting millennials mingling.
Conversely, Howling Bells have aged well and their debut gets a most-welcome playback at this London live show. This gig nearly didn’t happen. Vocalist Juanita Stein explains how their van was broken into overnight after their Manchester gig and whilst some of her personal possessions were stolen, the band’s equipment was left untouched. Oh Manchester so much to answer for.
The 229 venue – think school hall with an insurmountably high stage – is full. So many present would’ve been there with Howling Bells from the start of their career. Perhaps like me, they were first smitten back in the summer of 2006 when Howling Bells played the very first Latitude Festival. Siblings Juanita and Joe Stein and the rest of the band inspire such loyalty…even now.
As the stage is plunged in darkness the familiar album opener The Bell Hit builds sinisterly before mutating into an almost Beatlesque affair as Juanita sings “how the times have changed….”.
Everyone knows the script. Knows what’s up next. The setlist follows the track listing of their debut. There’ll be no surprises tonight. Howling Bells still play an impeccable live set and their debut sounds as gorgeous as ever. Velvet Girl gives way to the stand out track of the album, Low Happening – a relentless tale of a relationship turned bad “you listen to trash but it’s not rock’n’roll…”.
Appropriately, there’s more light hitting the stage now. Howling Bells have always blended the darkness of the jagged guitars with the sweeter, melodic hooks in Juanita Stein’s songs. During a quick guitar retune Juanita explains how their guitar tech guy has gone down with the chicken pox. Talking of poxy people, she also asks everyone to be kind and blitz the merch stand to help the band recoup some of the costs of fixing their vandalised van.
More toxic love songs follow including Broken Bones – they may hurt, says Juanita but she leaves no doubt as she finally shouts “but a broken heart will…NEVER mend!”, Followed by the chiming guitar of Wishing Stone, this debut is really just an album of greatest hits.
Coming on like a soundtrack to a Berlin basement bar A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts is so very Cabaret that Juanita just needs a burlesque bowler hat to complete the scene. She is just as intimate on Across The Avenue – as haunting and as beautiful as Mazzy Star with Juanita revealing “it’s love….and I’m in over my head…”.
There’s still another “hit” from the debut left with the soaring and magnificent Setting Sun.The last song on the Howling Bells debut is unusual in that it wasn’t penned by Juanita or her brother Joel. I’m Not Afraid was written by their father who sadly passed away suddenly in 2019. Juanita and Joel tenderly dedicate the song to their late father and hold back their tears and grief to finish the Howling Bells classic album.
By way of an encore Howling Bells finish with three tracks from their second album Radio Wars – from a mere thirteen years ago – including Cities Burning Down, Nightingale and the outstanding Into The Chaos.
The past doesn’t have to feel like a foreign country. Britain may well have got rid of four and hopefully five Prime Ministers since Bella Union released Howling Bells but unlike those politicians the debut is still a fantastic crowd-pleaser.