It’s funny, I always think of the Hammersmith Apollo as one of London’s bigger, less personal, gig venues. But last night Bear’s Den managed to make it feel like the back room of a smoky pub. Whether it was their particular brand of spiritual, emotive folk rock or the soft but striking set lighting I don’t know, but I liked it.
Since Joey Haynes left the band last year, Bear’s Den don’t play alone. On stage with songsmith and lead vocalist Andrew Davie and singer and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Jones, is Dutch session man Christof van der Ven on guitars and banjo, a sort of replacement for Haynes. A further three musicians support the main players to make up the six-piece touring outfit. They don’t all sport the group’s trademark big beards, but they do all share the understated geek chic vibe that seems to say ‘we’re here for the music’. Well that’s fine, Bear’s Den, because you know what, so are we.
The London-based folk rock outfit have toured extensively during the five or so years they’ve been together. They’ve even made it pretty big across the pond and ‘cracked’ America as we say. They’re popular live, and tonight, I can see why. They are at home on stage, making it look effortless, seamless.
They open with first track and title song from latest album Red Earth & Pouring Rain, it’s a strong choice. There is an electronic rock sound coming through the folk, which is new to the Bear’s Den sonic. It harks back to the 80’s glamour rock era and is evident in the new material. It works. the folk is still there, but with a bit of an edge, and a bit of polish.
Next up, the new album’s second track Emeralds was aired, but it wasn’t long before oldies from debut album Islands were mixed into the fold, threaded throughout the set alongside the more recent but already familiar and well-received tracks from Red Earth & Pouring Rain.
Of the Islands tracks, Elysium really stood out. Released as a single and EP in 2014, it’s a darkly dogged testimony to hope, and it gets to you through the varied instrumentation – a trumpet adding a distinctive brass element, and with the soft strings backed up by van der Ven on banjo, under the lowered scarlet lights – the result, live on stage, is stunning.
After more traditionally folky Bear’s Den tracks Isaac, Magdalen and The Love We Stole, the crowd were warming up nicely. New Jerusalem’s ‘oh Laura, I love you more’ lyrics from the sophomore album had everyone singing and clapping along, which is the Bear’ Den gig equivalent of the crowd-surfing, beer throwing behaviour seen at a Cribs or Jamie T gig. We’re here to listen to the music, don’t you know. It’s a testament to the band that their more recent material such as New Jerusalem gets the fans going just as much as the older stuff; and bodes well for the future – Bear’s Den’s best work may be yet to come.
Delicate and melodious Islands cut Gabriel cooled us down while When You Break got us going again, Davies telling us in his endearingly awkward way that this is a massive gig for them and far exceeds any expectations they ever had as a band, before breaking into stomper Auld Wives. Ivor Novello-nominated song Above The Clouds Of Pompeii brought the set to a close, with Davies joking that this really was, no one hundred percent was, the last song; in reference, of course, to the encore that was sure to follow. He’s joked before about the band standing in the corridor for a bit just waiting to come back on.
The cheers thankfully brought them back to the stage, and they gave us the up-tempo Dew On The Vine, before half the band left the stage again and just Davies, Jones & van der Ven crowded around the mic under a solitary shaft of light and performed a strong acoustic version of Bad Blood which had everyone singing along to ‘forgive me, for I am not acting myself…’.
With 2013 single Agape surely still to come, Davies thanked the band members, who were back on stage, we sang happy birthday to Jules on drums; was this it? But no. Agape. Please don’t dissipate.
Bear’s Den are good, very very good; their music is delicate and intricate and they perform it so beautifully. There’s no psychedelic imagery, no leaping into the crowd, no dramatics. It’s not that sort of a gig. Just the band, the music, a couple of jokes, and us. But with them, that’s enough.
And they may have already exceeded their own expectations as a band, but as the house lights come on and we wander blinking out into the foyer, I’m certainly not alone in hoping we’ll see more from them soon.
Live review of Bear’s Den @ Hammersmith Apollo by Helen Mallaby on 5th April 2017. Photographs by Lauren Patel.