10th June | SWX
Photos: Jess Greenwood
The modern ‘female-fronted bands’ brouhaha often seems to forget the likes of Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Siouxsie Sioux and many other non-alliterative leading ladies. The 90s could often seem Kevin-And-Perry/TFI Friday/Three Lions/Loaded Mag lad-heavy, but so many of its finest bands – The Breeders, Lush, Mazzy Starr, Babes in Toyland, Hole, The Sundays, Throwing Muses, L7 – were fronted by women. The lead singer of the latter became infamous for displaying her downstairs ‘female front’ on Channel 4’s The Word in 1992.
In 1993, we were treated to Star, the debut album by Belly. Founded by four Rhode Island former schoolfriends, they replaced the original bassist with their current incumbent, Gail Greenwood, just after they released their second album, King, in 1995, then promptly disbanded in 1996. Led by former member of Throwing Muses and The Breeders, Tanya Donnelly, they adopted their name because it sounded both pretty and ugly. To an extent, this echoes their tangled jangle, sometimes gossamer dream-pop, sometimes caustic, grunge-leaning rock (and frequently both within the same track).
When a band reforms after twenty years apart, as they did in 2016, you hope to God that there’s some new material in the offing and you add an additional prayer that it’s more than half-decent. Reunion tours as alimony/mortgage-covering nostalgia schleps are nothing short of grim. Praise be, then, that Belly brought a new album on tour, 2018’s Dove, that stands up strongly alongside its illustrious predecessors. Nine of Dove’s tracks formed half of the setlist.
They brought obvious innovation to counterbalance the inherent nostalgia. ‘Human Child,’ ‘Stars Align’ and ‘Army of Clay’ blazed a trail for the new album. Hidden/bonus track, ‘Starryeyed’ made for a soothing send-off at the end of the encore, the most exposed yet beautiful Tanya’s voice had been all night. On only the second night of their UK tour, they were clearly still getting their heads round playing the new songs live. ‘Faceless’ received its first-ever outing to end the first half of the show, culminating in relieved genuflection and smiles from its performers.
But they also looked like they were genuinely pleased to be on stage again, full of infectious exuberance and eager to please. They’d got their audience-warming schtick polished, with “Did you know that where we’re from is twenty minutes from Bristol, Rhode Island, birthplace of American democracy?” before ironically adding, “We owe you so much…” It went slightly panto when Gail Greenwood asked, “Can you bring the house lights up? I wanna see the beautiful people of Portsmouth,” earning a huge comedy ‘boo’ for accidentally name-checking the previous night’s venue. Not one for meekness, Gail scowled, smiled and snarled, “How quickly you turn.”
We loved them, really. We especially loved them when they rolled out ‘Slow Dog,’ ‘Feed The Tree’ and ‘Gepetto’ from Star. The latter had grown-up into a more chunky beast compared to its more jangly, jaunty 1993 self. Same could be said of many audience members, to be fair.