A combination of radio airtime, invaluable word of mouth, and a lot of bloody hard work finally appear to be paying off for Bear’s Den. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the compact confines of The Ruby Lounge hosted the band’s previous visits to Manchester and these shows in 2013 and 2014 were far from sell-outs. Things began to change with the autumn release of Islands in 2014 and when the current tour was originally announced at the 900 capacity Academy 2, it was very quickly bumped up to the 1500 capacity Ritz. Fans were clearly latching on to the evocative melodies inherent on the record and the band’s popularity snowballed exponentially. The current tour has now sold out venues across the whole of Europe and I was very much looking forward to seeing how this relatively new band were growing into more capacious surroundings tonight.
Lisa Mitchell’s slender acoustic introspections provide a pleasing start to the evening, although her slot initially proves to be a demanding one for the Australian singer-songwriter. Battling technical problems during her first track, she decides to continue unplugged and completely exposed. Moving to the very edge of the stage she urges the crowd for silence. The track must have sadly been lost on those at the very back of the hall, but for many the song proved to be a beautiful moment epitomising everything that we love about live music. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Lisa Mitchell’s delivery is profoundly earnest and at this particular moment, incredibly brittle and the Manchester crowd unquestionably appreciate the discipline along with the quality which she demonstrates in this moment.
Sadly, this collective experience does not last and it is ironic that once amplification is restored the audience’s attention begins to drift. It is still possible to discern the quality and innate gentleness and sincerity of Lisa’s music, but the impact is lessened by the general chit chat of others who seem less inclined to commit to the music’s demands. I look forward to seeing her again in more intimate surroundings, where her style and delivery will surely thrive.
By the time Bear’s Den emerge on stage the venue is full to bursting and an eclectic, expectant crowd welcomes them eagerly as the strains of the rousing and heart-stirring Elysium sweep gently around the venue. The track is complimented by the uplifting horns which help to establish the positive foundations for the evening and the tracks which follow establish quite clearly the influence close friends Mumford & Sons have had on the development of the band. Songs like Mother and Don’t Let the Sun Steal You Away posses a rootsy, very English vitality and this is complimented by warm vocals that are satisfyingly familiar yet never derivative. The familiarity which the band certainly evoke never becomes tedious however, and new track Red Earth and Pouring Rain provide a timely reminder of the band’s innate creativity. Possibly channelling the spirit of Death Cab for Cutie, the new song allows the band to mutate into something more dexterous, offering a fuller, meatier display compared to what has come before. It is perhaps ironic that the song manages to successfully demonstrate a grittier direction which some believe their contemporaries Mumford and Sons have possibly been less successful in achieving (although I personally enjoyed Wilder Mind). Immediately turning on a sixpence upon the song’s conclusion, the band present Sophie to the audience, unplugged and utterly vulnerable. It’s a lovely shift of pace, demonstrating the band’s instinctive skill in a live environment.
After an extended Freudian slip discussing Lisa Mitchell’s sleeping habits on the tour bus has the crowd in stitches, the band continue to explore their album Islands. Isaac showcases Andrew Davie’s expressive vocals, and the delicate expression of Sufjan Stevens along with the passion of Seth Lakeman spring to mind. It’s certainly a atmospheric mix and the gentle inflections offered by the lilting banjo provide a pleasing authenticity to the song, which has indeed been present throughout the evening.
The encore certainly ensures that the evening ends on a high and the band descend the steps of the stage and head towards the very centre of the room to perform Bad Blood, once again unplugged. A hush falls in the Ritz and the band close ranks under the harsh spotlight to deliver one of the highlights of the evening that is only topped by the final song of the night. Agape is a song possessing everything that is great about their brand of melodic, rootsy English folk-rock music. It is a very visual song with a great sing-a-long chorus and is certainly the perfect way to end an incredibly satisfying evening in the company of a hard-working band whose determination is certainly starting to pay off.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto