wears the trousers magazine


the bush the tree & me: live at dingwalls 23/09/09
September 24, 2009, 3:29 pm
Filed under: live, review | Tags: , , ,

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The Bush The Tree & Me
Dingwalls, London •••
September 23, 2009

A bright red teapot and a vase of flowers sit next to the monitor at the feet of Paula Cox. Behind her, above drummer Jimi Ashmore’s head, is a framed painting of a pair of swans, glaring in the stage light. There’s a lamp, too, to the right of heavily pregnant clarinetist and keyboard player Natalie Barowitz, and various other bits and bobs scattered around the stage, which also plays host to cellist Emma Puskás and guitarist Belinda Cullen. More than just a cute nod to the car boot sale chic of the artwork for their 2001 debut album, How To Get Home, this assorted bric-a-brac is also part of The Bush The Tree & Me’s drive to raise money for UK charity Sands, which supports bereaved parents, and is auctioned off at the end of the show. The foliaged friends are celebrating several things tonight: the release of their long-delayed second album, Mouthful Of Bees; their first gig together in goodness knows how long; Paula’s birthday; and their 20th anniversary as a band. The excited crowd, many of whom clearly go way, way back, add to the buzzing atmosphere (though perhaps with a little too much excitable chatter for us first-time observers) and if the band are nervous then it doesn’t show.

Part of what makes The Bush The Tree & Me so unique in the world of pop is, first and foremost, their unselfconscious ability to express lyrics of childlike contemplation and sweetly tempered feistiness without a whiff of anything contrived or false about them. These are typically couched in endearingly raw two-, three- or four-part harmonies and interesting, thoughtful arrangements, with another big plus being the sheer Englishness of their music. Paula’s accent is not that easy to place when singing – on the chorus of ‘You’, for instance, you’d swear she was Scottish – but her tone is appealingly honest and unpretentious. Decked out in a black lacy dress, the birthday girl is the focal point for most of the night as she grins her way between songs of brash existentialism to more subdued material, visibly full of gratitude for all the dedicated fans who’ve turned up for the occasion. Substantially less gratitude is owed to the soundman, however, whose distressing approach to manning the backline essentially means just pushing the levels of everything higher and higher as the set goes on until Natalie’s keyboard and Belinda’s guitar reach ear-splitting levels that invade the realms of physical pain.

Things don’t start well when the microphones cut out in the middle of the first song, an otherwise note-perfect version of old favourite ‘Something About Whistling’, leaving Paula and Natalie frantically grabbing at every alternative mic on the crowded stage. It’s an edgy way to open any grand comeback, but they take it in their stride and laugh it off, almost immediately launching into a lovely version of their great lost 2003 single ‘When You’re Gone’. Some other new songs follow, most prettily ‘Made Of Paper’ and ‘Monsters’, arguably the strongest track from Mouthful Of Bees, interspersed with a beautifully orchestrated version of ‘Doing The Right Thing’ from their debut EP No Buses and the still-moving harmonies of ‘Sacrifice’. It’s only when the louder songs demand more skill from the soundman that things go badly awry. New track ‘Jane’ passes by in a horrible assault of inscrutable noise that suggests this atypical track should remain a one-off curio, while the normally infectious ‘(Sometimes) You Do That’ is marred by a mystifying use of reverb that’s clumsily applied, if, indeed, it was intended at all.

Not that the regular crowd seem at all fussed; ‘Never The Same Twice’ inspires some creative dancing that never really lets up until the final note of third encore ‘Cheap As Chips’, an initially quiet, Cullen-sung ditty that explodes into a riot of drums and multi-layered harmonies. The levels, inevitably, are all over the place at this point, and there are fingers in ears. Credit to Paula though; she does an impressive job of rising above the racket, only sometimes hitting a ropey note, and seems almost oblivious to the chaos in the monitors (comparing the first few songs to the last would be like judging two different shows entirely). This issue aside, it is an affirmative display that The Bush The Tree & Me have still got it – the tunes, the charm and the musicianship – and that, even in these folk-pop laden times, they’ve preserved some of the uniqueness that made them special first time around. Though they occasionally edge close to being overly cuddly and twee, their songs are more often than not a joy to the ear and it’s clear the band just love to play them. Let’s hope that next time they get an engineer with a more sympathetic outlook.

Alan Pedder

visit The Bush The Tree & Me on Myspace


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