Sunday, 17 November 2019

GIG REVIEW: Bella Hardy - Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. Saturday 16th November 2019

2019 is an active yet reflective year for Bella Hardy. The acclaimed English folk singer-songwriter has been in a non-stop cycle of music making, tours, album releases and innovative projects for close on twenty years. Maybe the time to take stock, and reflect on a back catalogue of an album count nearly in double figures and a recording song catalogue pushing three figures. It is certainly prolific output for a artist only in their mid thirties While not ready to step away from the limelight, she has taken a carefully selected twenty five songs from the catalogue, added a couple of news ones, and delivered POSTCARDS & POCKETBOOKS: THE BEST OF BELLA HARDY. This is a gift to old fans in a neatly presented compendium, and new ones in a shortened showcase format. The only polite thing to do next is take these songs on the road to remind folks why she is such as compelling live performer as well.

Birmingham's MAC has been a regular host for Bella Hardy over the years and it proved the final stopping point for a short week long tour aimed to promote the new record, which was part of a merchandise package that also included a hardback bound collection of all her lyrics. For this tour, a trio format was assembled with Sam Carter on guitar and Tom Gibbs turning his hand to piano most of the time apart from a couple of songs when he played clarinet. Bella opened on harmonium before settling on violin as her instrument of choice, both plucked gently and played conventionally. However, she is just as comfortable when playing the sole vocalist role; an attribute that has brought her most fame.

After Sam Carter opened the show with a couple of his own songs, including a new one titled 'The Anvil', Bella and Tom joined for a full two-set performance where fifteen tracks off the new album were shared alongside countless stories of their origin. An essential ingredient of any folk gig.

If you approached this gig with little knowledge about the music of Bella Hardy, it will be a given that you would have left well-versed two hours after entering the theatre. Not only is she an excellent writer of original songs, she often seeks out traditional ones and twists outcomes and perspectives. This happened on at least three shared this evening: 'Seventh Girl', 'Good Man's Wife' and 'Silvie Sovay'. While on the topic of traditional music, we were treated to a song that has only made the setlist in the last few shows after being a studio track for several years when Bella rose to the challenge of reciting the many, many verses of 'The Drunken Butcher of Tideswell'.

On the original front, 'The Herring Girl', the most familiar Bella Hardy song, made an appearance in the early stages. It is imperative a folk gig enacts its first murder as quickly as possible. Surpisingly, on this occasion the gruesomeness markedly receded.

For an artist steeped in the English folk tradition, Bella Hardy has often drew on her overseas experience which has seen stints spent living in China and America, plus a trip to Japan when opening for Lau. The latter experience led to 'Full Moon Over Amsterdam' being born during a lengthy stopover in Schiphol airport. Surely a place where many a touring singer-songwriter has drawn on the waiting experience.

Her stateside adventures led to 'Queen of Carter's Bar' coming out of a co-writing venture in Nashville, a city that gets referenced in 'Tequilla Moon' that formed the encore segment of tonight's show. The West Coast forms the backdrop to 'Learning to Let Go'', which opened the set, while 'Time Wanders On', a song Bella wrote in Calgary with Canadian artist Cara Luft, was one of the picks from the first half.

Perhaps the two crowning moments of this show came in the second half, a point where the trio's performance and particularly Bella's vocals hit that zone of aligning perfectly with the listening experience. First up, 'Lament for Derwent' came across as sheer bliss as Bella contemplated a moment when this Derbyshire location, in fact her home county, could have been lost to an onset of land re-alignment in the water industry. By the time we were served the beauty of the pre-encore number, 'Walk It With You', any investment in attending this gig had been handsomely repaid many times over.

If the next twenty years are as productive for Bella Hardy as the period leading up to POSTCARDS & POCKETBOOKS, then fans new and old from the folk circuit and beyond will be in for a real treat. Just like those attending the MAC this evening.

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