The artwork on the cover of Bear’s Den’s latest record, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, gives you the wrong idea about the band. The hyper-realism style, almost oil painting-esque image of a girl driving a car through the night creates an impression, to me, of a squeaky synth pop band trying to be edgier than the soulless music they create, probably ironically. And, if your first listen of the band is the first track on that album, your inkling might seem correct. This isn’t for me you’d think, and trail off into other realms of Spotify to find something more worth your while. But hold up. The title track is not a good representation of the immense music this folk rock band are capable of creating. They aren’t all 80s style drum hits and echoing synths – they are a space of perfect finger picked guitar, perfect harmonies, and the most perfect lyrics to match. They can be heart-wrenchingly tender, yet also can be so huge to be main-stage-festival-worthy. And that’s exactly what happened when I saw in the Lemon Grove this evening.
As expected, they opened with ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain’ smoothly followed by the equally as synth based ‘Emeralds’, which treated the audience to one of the catchiest guitar licks on the album. It added another layer to their texture that seemed to only grow. Played with an acoustic guitar by frontman Andrew Davie, it was delicious to hear the subtle strokes of steel strings behind the synths as a reminder of their more modest beginnings.
…. a cluster of bespectacled, bearded, guitar-wielding men and their disciple fans edging closer to the harmonious huddle.
They continue the theme with another track from Red Earth, ‘Greenwoods Bethlehem’, and my opinion shifts slightly. It’s one hell of a builder, starting with a gentle guitar pattern and some loose synthesised dots leading into Davie’s voice – that voice – and a melody that strikes me with its beauty. The trance is broken by a big hit (on a bass drum bigger than a human, marked with the engraving ‘The Moorland Links’), and we’re brought back to that synthetic, 80s sound – the sound of the album that follows me everywhere whilst exploring the new Bear’s Den. A sound that I once thought, whilst listening to the record at home, that I could not warm to. Incidentally I am proved wrong by an incredible live performance, filling the room with that euphoria of spending long summer afternoons lying in fields and staring at clouds. I’m drawn back in with strong blue lighting and utilisation of smoke machine, which really enhances the heartfelt vocal refrain that Davie belts out from his the depths of his insurance-worthy lungs. Davie asks us to forgive his nervousness, which of course we do eagerly. We are right to, as the jangle of a rich and full steel stringed guitar on ‘Stubborn Beast’ saturates the audience with incomprehensible feelings. It’s so sad, but I need to hear more. It’s a song the band admit they “never figured out how to play live”, so, naturally, they play it live, and nail it.
The set only gets better and better the more intimate it gets. The familiar, homely sounding banjo is introduced on ‘Isaac’, weaving layers of plucked strings with profound, reflective lyrics about fatherly love. A beautiful moment occurred here; the chorus was all vocal harmony, sung strikingly by the members on-stage, and just as tenderly by a sold out Lemon Grove singing “I’m going to give all my love to you”, back at the band. It was a breath-taking moment.
Soon I thought I wouldn’t have any breath left, as it was taken further away from me during an entirely unplugged ‘Her Tears’, which would have been difficult to hold back tears of my own if I wasn’t in a crowded room full of people. I almost broke at the closing song of the set, as the heart-breaking story behind ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’, sung through a voice cracked with memory and longing, was melting for anyone without a heart of stone. It was a perfect ender, and I would’ve been more than happy with my evening had it culminated there. But if it had, I would not have experienced one of the most magical things I’d seen. After an over-aware encore break (“this is our last song, then we’re going to stand in the hallway for thirty seconds, then come out and play some more songs”), Bear’s Den wanted more unplugged, and so did we. What better way to do that than stand right in the middle of the audience, a cluster of bespectacled, bearded, guitar-wielding men and their disciple fans edging closer to the harmonious huddle. Again, we joined in the harmonies for ‘Bad Blood’ in such a quiet and respectful manner it didn’t feel real, and as I left the venue, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d just witnessed something very, very special indeed.