Howling Bells played the penultimate night of their Revive Live tour at Night And Day Cafe in Manchester on Friday night, performing their self-titled debut album in full plus tracks from its follow-up Radio Wars, turning back the clock way back to 2006. Support came from Lexi Berg playing a solo set showcasing tracks from her recent debut EP.
Lexi Berg opens up proceedings and the Swedish songwriter charms an initially chatty Manchester crowd with a set of songs taken from her recent Empire Of One EP as well as a few early singles and a couple of new tracks. Her songs connect at the personal level as she tells us regularly many of them were written during lockdown and her own experiences. Stuck in a building surrounding by scaffolding on her own gave her plenty of time with her thoughts which come pouring out on the likes of Lonely World and Empire Of One's title track. There's a contrast though that many will also relate to in the release of Into The Sea, a song about returning home to Sweden and the comforting normality of being able to take in a simple pleasure like a walk on the coastline in familiar surroundings.
Normally performing with a band, she tells us these songs are stripped back to how she created them and with eyes closed you could imagine being in the room when they were such is the emotion that is written all across her lightly accented vocals. She charms the audience with comments about Northerners being more polite and chatty than Southerners, something that always goes down well up here, but you get the sense from her that this is as genuine as the subjects she explores in her songs.
It's been nearly eight years since Howling Bells were last in town, Juanita Stein having diverted to three gorgeous country-tinged solo albums in the intervening years, but the tracks from their 2006 debut, which they play in full in order, feel as fresh as if they were written yesterday. They always were an anomaly in the mid 2000s void where independent guitar music went into one of its lulls. These songs move from being drenched in gorgeous dripping melodies like on Broken Bones, The Night Is Young and A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts into harder-edged tracks like Wishing Stone and Setting Sun.
They may have not played together on a regular basis for eight years, but there's very much a sense that the connection between the four of them - Juanita's brother Joel on guitar, Gary Daines on bass and Glenn Moule on drums - hasn't dissipated any over the years they've been on what they described as an unplanned hiatus way back. Juanita doesn't say a great deal - other than to praise Manchester, ask us whether she should drink tequila or water and semi-apologise for the time taken tuning her guitar because their guitar tech, in a world of COVID cancellations, has gone down with the much more rock and roll ailment of chicken pox in his forties.
That connection extends to the audience - Howling Bells may have not knocked down the doors of the charts in the way their labels may have wanted them to, but they certainly picked the locks of the hearts of those who've packed out the Night And Day to celebrate one of the underdog bands of their time. There's a little gentle moshing as the second half of the album, a rarity in that it's stronger than the first half from a time where singles and the strongest tracks front-ended a record, unfolds and that connection grows deeper. They finish with a trio of songs from their second album Radio Wars - Cities Burning Down, Nightingale and Into The Chaos - that showcased a hardening to the edges of their sound and this is very much evidenced in the live performance of them.
They give little away as to whether this tour, of which this is the penultimate date, is a celebration (albeit slightly belatedly, but you know why..) of the fifteenth anniversary of their debut - Juanita apologises for the lack of vinyl thanks to Adele subsuming the world's capacity for it - or a starting point from which new music will evolve. Either way, tonight is a reminder of the timeless majesty of a band that history will be kinder to than the times in which they existed.
Howling Bells played The Bell Hit, Velvet Girl, Low Happening, Broken Bones, Wishing Stone, A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts, The Night Is Young, Across The Avenue, Setting Sun, Blessed Night, In The Woods, I'm Not Afraid, Cities Burning Down, Nightingale and Into The Chaos.