FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: BEDFORD BLISS
A deviation from the usual F3F format this week as we focus on a review of a spectacular evening in South-west London on 30 September at the iconic Club Room at The Bedford, Balham. It’s a unique circular space with a narrow balcony that puts you in mind of a mini Elizabethan theatre such is the proximity of performers and audience. Add a state of the art sound system expertly worked by sound engineer Rich, an ebullient host – Tony Moore - and a track record for giving a live platform to future stars (Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, London Grammar among many), it’s the kind of venue where great live music is consistently guaranteed. Whether you’ve heard the acts before doesn’t matter in the slightest. You just know it is going to be good.
As it happens, I actually had heard of all three acts tonight and indeed had some part in putting the evening together. The Lunar Keys, Alex Hall and Denney have each been championed in this column many times. My high bar expectations of watching them all live on a single stage for the first time were genuinely exceeded. First up was (Emma) Denney whose bashfully natural stage presence belied the fact that, bar a handful of open mic spots, she had hardly performed live before. With a set of eight strong original songs and one familiar cover (Biffy Clyro’s “Many of Horror”), and ably flanked on most of them by keyboard and electric guitar, Denney delivered a sumptuous set.
Her edgy laughter was infectious and this managed to put both singer, despite her nerves, and audience at ease. Here and there, a little steel was added to the delicate, die-away vocal tone that you hear on record and while the opening songs might have had the odd pitchy moment, she grew as the set progressed culminating in the beautiful waltz-like closer, “Who We Are”. This song perfectly projects Denney’s potential to break into the mainstream; when she questions whether it is the person or the comfort of being in a nice relationship that she misses, she speaks for the many. Midway in the set, Denney played a couple of solo piano songs including her latest release, “Say It Again”, a collaboration with Mexican-born US-based producer Lalo Díaz aka Pop Spirit. The studio recording is pretty upbeat but she worked her magic on her own stripped back version tonight.
Tonight was an evening of contrasts and complements – compliments too as Tony Moore’s enthusiastic introductions to each act were followed by fulsome appreciation as each set ended; the word ‘amazing’ bandied about frequently. Anyone who has listened to the self-production values Alex Hall instils into his songs on record may have wondered how he might recreate anything approaching these sounds as a live solo performer. The answer came quickly as the South Coast native unleashed a one-man band blizzard of a set up combining live vocals and instruments with loops and backing tracks. He kicked off with his latest single, “Heartache”, which he describes self-effacingly as the product of “wanting to experiment with something run of the mill indie production wise.” It is no surprise that the opposite is true given his excellence at storytelling. Here’s the somewhat deadpan video to the studio version. The live take was spot on too.
It was hard to pick out highlights as the entire set was just that but Alex’s duet with Emma Denney on “Fire Escape” was simply magical while his dance moves to “Still Hurts” and trumpet solo which provided a mournful coda to “Pterodactyl” were master strokes. The trumpet also played a comic role as the singer reached for it earlier in the set only to find it was at the other side of the stage, calling for a quick spot of humming to fill in. Finishing in singalong style with “Lost In A Song”, Alex Hall added great entertainer to his consummate musical and songwriting skills. Quintessentially English, he’d be as home at a summer seaside pier show as he would soundtracking an indie disco.
Finally, to the headliner. I first encountered The Lunar Keys via the band’s entry to the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition 2020 when it was one of the three acts I chose to go through to the longlist from all 210 in my batch. I was impressed then with the band’s stadium-ready sound and, despite the pandemic, the alt. rock four-piece has gone from strength to strength, adding quality songs to its growing repertoire which combine memorable tunes with thought provoking lyrics. Midway through tonight’s set, the band premiered its latest single, “Stop This”, which is released today.
“Stop This” considers the darker side of human emotions, that we are not always in the driving seat when it comes to our thoughts and feelings. It links arms with those affected and looks for a collective way to overcome this negative stuff. Live, there’s immediacy to the band’s songs; all are energetically delivered with lead vocalist and bassist, JC, a commanding figure upfront. The sound is super tight throughout, expertly marshalled by Dom on the drums while guitarist known as ‘The Steve’ and keyboardist, Lexi, add real colour and texture, filling out an impeccable sound. Along with “Dance With Me” and “If It Was”, the closing song “Dreams R Never Spoken” cried out for lyrics to be sung back by a crowd. It won’t be too long till that happens in a festival field somewhere.
I hope some of that took you there. If it did, you can watch the entire show on The Bedford’s Facebook Live channel. It all kicks off around 16 mins in with Tony Moore’s introductions. Don’t miss those either!
Photos of The Lunar Keys, Alex Hall & Denney all kindly supplied by Kevin England
We conclude this irregular but still hopefully perfectly formed edition of Fifty3 Fridays with something I have never featured before. Namely a podcast. Last year the London-based singer-storyteller, Gecko, released a particularly fine album, Climbing Frame, which looked to the past to offer hope in troubled times, mixing poignancy with humour, nostalgia with a whole lot of love. I was particularly taken by his heartfelt tribute in song to poor Laika, the first dog in space in 1957.
With support from Arts Council England, Gecko has re-emerged with an 8-episode podcast entitled The Flock. Combining story with songs, it is an environmental fable about the end of the world, featuring two avian characters, Parrot and Budgie as they escape from captivity and seek to build a Cloud Cuckoo Land in the skies as a refuge from human destruction. Yet their progress is hampered by conflicts between the wild and city birds, alongside relentless human advances, so Budgie decides more desperate action is needed. I won’t spoil the story by revealing any more plot but heartily commend The Flock to your audio agenda. Here is Episode 1.