Bear's Den's visit to Oxford last night was greatly-anticipated, the gig having sold out a good deal in advance. The band were playing as part of their tour to promote Red Earth and Pouring Rain, the follow-up to their 'silver'-certified selling sophomore album, Islands. Last year saw the amicable departure of banjo player Joey Haynes, reducing the trio to a duo and resulting in a very different sound for the new album. For some people, Haynes' exit prompted questions of whether the album could live up to its predecessor and whether the dynamics and overall power of the live shows would be detrimentally affected. Such people needn't have worried.
When support act Banfi take to the stage, the room is already packed and buzzing. Banfi live up to the occasion well, offering up a set of 'boppy' numbers with intricate riffs, jangly guitar sounds and catchy choruses that you can't help but nod along. They're very likeable too and certainly a band to look out for.
Bear's Den walk on to fervent applause (and the soundtrack to Terminator, no less) and open with their album's title track 'Red Earth and the Pouring Rain'. Any prior concerns about what effect Haynes's departure might have are quickly quashed. What is immediately apparent is the incredibly powerful stage presence of the band, the energy and passion palpably emanating from the stage.
The musical arrangements are interesting, whether it be the sparse chords and beats on the beautiful 'Gabriel', or the fuller sound on 'Dew on the Vine'. It is the vocals, however, which really leave a mark. Andrew Davie's voice has an honesty and raw emotion to it that, along with Kevin Jones' harmonies, give a lasting poignancy to the songs and make it hard not feel moved. What is particularly impressive is when the band play unamplified: the crowd are rapt, respectfully listening in hushed silence during the music before breaking out into enthusiastic applause afterwards.
The band are signed to Communion Records, jointly set up by the band's very own Kevin Jones and Mumford & Son's keyboardist Ben Lovett. The parallels between the two bands are certainly apparent, although – particularly in the case of album Red Fire and the Pouring Rain - Bear's Den's sound is more expansive and generally more vocal-led. Whereas Islands very much has the banjo (played by Haynes) at its core, Red Fire and the Pouring Rain has a far more 80s sound to it, synth-dominant and with a more echoey drums. However, both albums work beautifully tonight, the pulsating synth and guitar riffs in 'Auld Wives' lifting us from the beautiful but melancholic tone of songs such as 'Isaac' with an impressive punch that is hypnotic and intensified by the characteristic harmonies.
We are treated to a new song in the form of 'Berlin' which is simply stunning. The song harks back to the style of Islands, with the banjo and acoustic guitar producing a more folky, almost lullaby-like sound and the fragility in Andrew Davie's voice once again finding a place to nestle itself firmly somewhere in the listener's heart. A future album made up of songs like this would certainly be very welcome.
Bear's Den draw the set to a close with crowd-pleaser 'Above the Clouds of Pompeii', a foot-stomping, heartfelt hit from Islands and another example of the band's ability to combine banjo, guitar, trumpet and vocals to incredible effect. The crowd sing along, hands in the air. After a tongue-in-cheek return to the stage, the band encore with another unamplified song, this time a version of 'Bad Blood' but among the audience, before inevitably ending the night with 'Agape', their biggest hit from Islands, which ensures that we all go home with our spirits high and our feet still tapping. This was a truly wonderful set, full of eclectic sounds and arrangements, heartfelt vocals and beautiful harmonies. What is more, the band are a lot of fun and clearly humble, despite their wonderful talent. If you can catch them anywhere on the remainder of their tour, you'd be a fool to miss them!