Happy Birthday Bella Union, Royal Festival Hall

The biggest treat is reserved for the surprise appearance of Paul Weller, for a pumped-up version of 'Young Bride'.

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Date: 11 Jul 2007 | By Richard Stokoe | Rating: 4
Happy Birthday Bella Union, Royal Festival Hall

The second and final night of the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of Bella Union's creation proves to be a fitting tribute, as a packed Royal Festival Hall witnesses four of the label's artists perform admirably, and spring a few surprises along the way. During those first ten years Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde have assembled an impressive roster that includes such notable acts as The Dears, Explosions In The Sky and Howling Bells. It would seem that they've adopted the philosophy of their former label 4AD in signing acts whose music they have a genuine affection for, and who skirt just to the left of the mainstream, whilst allowing them the necessary creative freedom that forms their individuality. What their artists do have in common though is melody, innovation and, dare I say it, a certain ethereal quality.

Paul Morley, the evening's compere, neatly sums up the importance of Bella Union with his comment that it's a label you can trust. He also adds, in grimly realistic tones, that before long it will become nigh on impossible for a label of their kind to survive. That is no doubt a very real and depressing possibility, but for now, let's enjoy them while they're here.

Tonight's line-up covers several shades of the label's broad spectrum. Stephanie Dosen is first up and immediately sets a high standard. A singer-songwriter of angelic physical demeanour, she has a voice that conveys beauty and assertion and reminds of both Regina Spector and Harriet Wheeler. However, with continued listening the voice develops a character and strength all of its own. In many ways she could be thought of as the archetypal signing for a label run by two former Cocteaus; heavenly songs performed by a singer who can turn a delicate murmur to a soaring, spine-tingling wail within seconds. Paying tribute to her label she turns comedienne in order to sing an ad-libbed ditty that recalls how her bosses had plucked her from the obscurity of working in a shoe shop. Her kooky sense of humour seems to both baffle and beguile the audience, but all were surely moved by her performance for the stunning 'A Lily For The Spectre', for which cello and violin provided the sole backing to her gently plucked guitar and transcendent vocal.

Next up are Danish band 'The Kissaway Trail', who put in an entertainingly energetic performance. Creating the sort of expansive cacophony you'd expect from a band containing three guitarists, the live situation gives songs such as 'Smother + Evil = Hurt' and 'La La Song' a completely new dimension. They finish their set with a pounding rock 'n' roll ending so long it even includes an interval, which sees the band members raise placards aloft spelling out the message 'BELLA UNION ROCKS', along with a series of love hearts. It was a nice moment that summed up the whole ethos and strength of the label - the relationship between Bella Union and their artists is one of warmth and respect. The label has complete admiration for its bands, which inspires loyalty and trust in return. They're like one big, happy family.

The Dears then follow and tonight their soulful brand of alternative rock really cuts through, seeing them ultimately, and surprisingly, claiming the award for the band most likely to cause tinnitus. On stage they cut a peculiar dash; all six members (drummer and two female keyboard players included) lined up at the front, squaring up to the audience like a street gang containing members of Godspeed! and The Human League. Murray Lightburn's powerful vocal is typically passionate and, as strong as the temptation may be to defy Morley's wishes and compare them to every other band under the sun (The Smiths anyone?), it is evident from their live show that they really aren't quite like anyone else.

It is final act Midlake who provide the night's real surprises however, in the form of appearances from label boss Raymonde, a vocal outing for Stephanie Dosen, and a special guest spot for Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers, who joins the band for 'Roscoe'. That isn't all they have up their sleeves though; the biggest treat is reserved for the appearance of Paul Weller, who plays and co-sings a pumped-up version of 'Young Bride'. A real coup for the band and a fitting gift for both label and audience, it is a moment that helps prove that Weller's legend extends far beyond mere Modfatherhood.

As proceedings end in celebratory mood, the evening's showcase proves that, as a label, Bella Union is not just important - it's vital. Let's just pray it is still going strong in another ten years.