Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Sea of Bees

Mike Hughes 15/02/2011

Their differences were heightened tonight, almost comedic. Isobel Campbell, the fey one-time female face of Belle and Sebastian. Mark Lanegan hewn from the rock of his own history in QOTSA and Screaming Trees. They have recorded together now for three album's worth of years. Although Isobel is no shrinking rose in the joint writing stakes, the recorded output always seems dominated by Mark's unmistakable glowering vocal presence. I was hugely interested to see how this pairing, which demands careful listening even under controlled conditions, would fare live at this NME Awards Show.

Despite not being sold out, there was love enough evident in the room. Opening number We Die And See Beauty Reign was compelling in its quietude. There was a nice step change for the second number You Won't Let Me Down Again, Mark's voice portentous as the volume ramped a little. The balance between the two, this quiet girl and this hard man of rock, worked far better here in the living flesh.

By now though, something was becoming apparent; that there was to be no audience interaction whatsoever. Mark sometimes squinted a bit, grimaced from the side of his mouth, and once, fleetingly, looked approving at Isabel. I was close enough to see, front row, when some wag behind me shouted up between songs " You okay on stage?". The look of disdain from Mister Lanegan was unmistakable. Sadly Isobel was no better, occasionally smiling wanly at her onstage partner, looking as though she needed approval. She commented once only, on a guitar tuning problem from one of band.

OK, I guess if we wanted comedy we should go to Les Jongleurs, we were here for the music. With tonight's audience, when Isobel was the sole voice in Saturday's Gone', it was greeted with pin drop reverence. The next number after that was Backburner which saw a welcome step up in volume. The main instrumentation is a simple drumbeat but the addition of an effects mic for Isobel added some much-needed boost. As we headed to the interval things, the blues showed through and things got louder and rockier; time passed quicker. Mark remained as he had been all night, one hand on the mic stand, the stars and dots tattooed on his fingers better lit than his face.

The set list promised 4 songs for the encore, in the event they cut it short at three. In fact you could see them on stage, Mark giving the order, then Isobel going round to tell the band that this would be the last. Revolver is such an insinuating spell that it had to be a highlight of the night, whilst Come Walk With Me felt comforting as a lullaby.

It was nice, it was an occasion, but it was too long and it was a relief when they stepped up the pace just before the interval. If I was going to see them again, it would have to be a smaller venue, in order to explore whether it was simply the large stage at the Empire that made it feel so sterile.

There was confusion about the support. Cherry Ghost were listed to play and didn't. I don't know whether word got out, but there were certainly fans down the front who made the trip simply to see him.
On the other hand, we were treated to Sea Of Bees, just Jules and Amber on stage with two guitars. Jules is the star, funny, affecting and childlike. She stood rubbing her eyes as though waking from a dream, telling tales of jonesing for Connor Oberst the night before at the Scala, while Amber made affectionate mock of this obsession. When there were well deserved whoops and yelps from the audience, Jules gave little yelps right back, sounding like a backwoodsman calling to birds. They created a magic spell and if you do nothing else tonight, look out their song The Gold.