Bishop's House, Sheffield, 14/4/2019
published: 24 /
At an intimate and ancient venue in Sheffield Nicky Crewe watches Alex Neilson as he ‘ditches bitterness to take us straight to regret’ with his dark and powerful music. He also gives us the magic formula for the cure for depression, raising spirits in more ways than one.
Over the years I’ve seen Alex Neilson in some unconventional settings. When he was with Trembling Bells I saw them in the glorious Glanusk park in the Brecon Beacons, home of the Green Man festival. Later I saw them in an eerily deserted semi derelict department store, where the BBC’s Stone Tapes was also on the bill. I saw Trembling Bells for the last time last year at the re-purposed National Centre for Popular Music, the Hubs, in Sheffield.
I have always thought Alex Neilson was the dark and tortured flipside to Lavinia Blackwall’s avenging angel.
This Sunday night event was organised by Sheffield based Heretics Folk Club at Bishops’ House. This half timbered building dates back to the 1500s. Performances take place in a tiny parlour with beams and a 300 year old oak bench as part of the seating. It’s an intimate and unusual space.
I’ve been listening to Alex’s second solo album ‘Otterburn’ and I knew this had the makings of an intense and possibly overwhelming evening. Sheffield was the last date on his tour. He was beautifully supported by Rory Haye, (guitars and vocals), Georgia Seddon (vocals and keyboards) and Audrey Bizouerne (guitars and vocals). Those of you familiar with Alex Neilson’s story will know that it’s now two years since his much loved younger brother died unexpectedly in his sleep. There are aspects of Alex’s recent music that address the deep grief of this abrupt end. In fact every song in the set came to an abrupt end and I couldn’t help wondering if there was a connection.
I’d listened to him being interviewed by Clive Anderson on Radio 4’s 'Loose Ends' over the weekend, where he briefly discussed the impact of his brother’s death and seeking therapy.
He came on stage wearing a t-shirt with the legend Alex Says Relapse (available from the merch stand). His conversation between songs is easy and humorous, with a gallows humour that isn’t so dark that it’s uncomfortable. He talked about having ginger hair, about his mother, about trauma. He played drums and sang, he played drums and the harmonica simultaneously too. 'Haunted House' was perfect for the 16th century setting, 'Coward’s Song', 'Master', 'Please God Make Me Good' (inspired by St Augustine’s "but not yet"), and 'Uses of Trauma' were all part of the set. The most moving song for me was his version of a traditional song, 'The Night Visiting Song (I Must Away)'. He told us he had dreamt about singing it with his brother.
He is an amazing artist. Alasdair Roberts (who has worked with him) says he has a "complex and inquisitive musical mind." I find him terrifyingly honest in his approach to songwriting and sometimes that scares me. I can’t help feeling fearful for him, but at the same time I am relieved by his ability to express his difficulties and darkness through his music. There’s always been a wild energy in Trembling Bells’ music and performances and Alex Neilson has brought together a group of musicians who can more than match that with him in his own songs.
Thinking back to the Stone Tapes, and very aware of the history of this venue, I couldn’t help wondering what energies were being stirred in Sheffield on this particular Sunday night.
The promoter, Rob Lee, was multi tasking as sound engineer and a member of the support act, Bobby Lee. This is a new venture for the trio of Rob Lee on guitar, Guy Whittaker on drums and Mark Armstrong on bass. Paul Cross of independent record label Sonido Polifonico has described them as J J Cale meets the Durutti Column and I can see why. Psychedelic country instrumentals were just right for the early part of the night.
It’s always a pleasure to be at a gig where the audience is enthusiastic and respectful too. I hope Alex Rex enjoyed it as much as I did.
Almost forgot! The cure for depression is to shout "Yeah baby Whoo!" I suspect the real cure for depression is to take your impressive songs on the road with such a talented group of musicians.