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Zing Went The Strings, Straight To My Heart

Seventeen months, one week and five days after they were first due to play Union Chapel, Bell X1 and the Dowry Strings made it on stage. “How much do I owe you for the ticket?” my friend asked. I couldn’t remember. Neither could the box office. We settled on £25 and both felt it was money very well spent.

Union Chapel Side Choir Loft

Back at the Union Chapel barely three weeks after my last visit, things have changed. They’ve now opened the choir lofts for those who prefer a broader view and they’ve turned the heating on. There’s still no tea and coffee, but the bar was busy. You can eat there too, although within a ten minute walk there are a host of excellent pubs and cafes if you’re meeting up with friends beforehand. They include the Workers Cafe (excellent coffee), the Blue Legume (delicious paella) and the legendary Hope and Anchor pub, all in Upper Street.

Having initially sat in the pews, we relocated to the choir loft. The view of the musicians is unbeatable and the acoustics are at their best. The only slight drawback was the lighting which dazzled occasionally like, as it transpired, the blinding light of angels.

The Dowry Strings

The first thing to note is that there was no support act. Dowry Strings were playing with Bell X1, not beneath them on the bill. And that’s a deserved status because they brought a lot to the show. What that meant in practice is that we had nearly two hours of Bell X1, the gig equivalent of buying a Kit Kat and finding that one stick was solid chocolate.

It’s a travesty that Bell X1 aren’t huge. They should be as big as the likes of Elbow or Doves but they’re not. Their albums are consistently strong, but live they can touch rare levels of spine tingling magic.

I’ve seen them four times now. First they were an out and out rock band playing at Imperial College. Second time out they played a gorgeously intimate gig at Bush Hall. Last time I saw them was for an acoustic show in the Union Chapel. And this time, they’ve rearranged ther songs beautifully to work with a string quartet.

Perfect lighting for atmosphere

The show starts as a bit of a slow burn as we acclimatise to the sound of a string quartet working with the band. It could be a risk too far, if the strings were to add a syrupy sweetness to songs that are emotionally honest while laced with humour. It’s quickly clear that there is no need to worry. The strings are sweet but not saccharine, delicate but also strong. They add emotional ballast and a fullness to the sound. They’re gorgeous.

It doesn’t take long to pick up the pace. ‘Upswing’, as many Bell X1 songs do, sounds even better live than on vinyl. The big hitters start coming - ‘Velcro’, ‘Bad Skin Day’, ‘Hey Anna Lena’. These are songs that a lesser group would have to save for the encore. Here they set out the stall, holding out the promise of remarkable things to come.

The three band members, Paul Noonan, David Geraghty and Dominic Phillips, all take a turn on vocals and they all sound perfect. They convey honesty, emotional literacy and humour in the way that the best Irish novelists and poets do. I’m getting tingles down my spine just remembering this - well, to the west of it anyway. (That’s a reference for Bell X1 aficionados!)

I’d forgotten their habit of switching between each other’s instruments, sometimes mid song and always seamlessly. This is a band that has no ego, but functions as a single precision instrument.

They have a couple of new songs. That’s the moment of dread for an audience but these are good. ‘Lobster’ is a little more upbeat than some of their recent work; the second which remains unnamed for me is classic Bell X1. It all adds to the reassuring feelgood factor. They haven’t lost it, the songs are great and you never know, there may be another album on the way!

They play a couple of songs without the Dowry Strings. They go down well. It’s their gig after all! Much as we’ve loved what the Dowry Strings bring, it’s the equivalent of that moment when house guests pop out to do their own thing without you, a chance to be truly themselves for a moment.

All together now!

The strings are soon back though. ‘Careful What You Wish For’ benefits tonight from its perkier pulse and treatment. The strings aren’t dwarfed by the mighty ‘The Great Defector’. And if you thought that the strings were all sweetness and light, they add menace to ‘This One’s For Me’.

Every Bell X1 gig has a couple of songs that simply blow you away. ‘Eve, The Apple Of My Eye’ is one of their statement songs. It’s one that acts as a magnet to the kind of stuff that lodges in grown men’s eyes, or sticks in their throat. Without very careful handling, the only way for this song to go when performed live is downhill. Oh my! Here the strings soar, softening the song into one that takes you by surprise like a memory rather than one that captures the anguish of the moment. It’s a beautiful rendition.

The other song is Amelia. In recorded form it’s so reliant on its waves of synthesiser that to strip them away might seem to take away its heart. No, not in these hands. It’s a different song, a transformation from gentle electronica to soulful masterpiece.

When I think of the songs they could afford to exclude, I’m in awe of what they’ve played for us. I hope, really hope, for a vinyl edition of this live concert.

I loved this gig.

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