Live Review: Bell X1 with Vita and the Woolf at Lincoln Hall, Chicago – 25th February 2017

By on Wednesday, 1st March 2017 at 2:00 pm

Last weekend, I left sunny Tucson behind for a quick trip to Chicago, and I almost regretted my choice as soon as I stepped off the airplane. After a long stretch of unseasonably warm weather, the Windy City had reverted to its usual for February: cold and, well, windy. Luckily, the gig I was in town for turned out to be well worth both the travel and the winter chill. On Saturday night, downtown Chicago’s Lincoln Hall played host to Irish rock trio Bell X1, who have added a very distinct measure of warmth to their live sound on their current American tour, in support of last October’s LP release ‘Arms’.

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The opening act for the evening, Vita and the Woolf, take their moniker from the romantic affair between early 20th century authors Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. The band Vita and the Woolf are officially a duo consisting of singer and Jennifer Pague and drummer Adam Shumski, but on this particular occasion, they brought along guitarist Dane Galloway as well. With Pague doubling on keyboards, the three of them created a surprisingly full and forceful live sound. Pague’s singing has been compared to that of Florence (+ the Machine) Welch, and while Vita and the Woolf didn’t quite match that heady level of power and mysticism, the potential is certainly there. If that sound is up your street, keep an eye out for Vita and the Woolf’s debut album ‘Tunnels’ later this year.


From the moment Bell X1 first took the stage, it was clear that something different was afoot for them. Bass player Dominic Phillips was situated at the front of the stage, an unusual position for him in my experience, but an effective one as the band opened with a soft-spoken trio version of ‘Bad Skin Day’. The recorded version of this song is quite complex, but the band pared it back to its bare minimum here, and the lyrics and vocal harmonies were notably more exposed.

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The reason for Phillips’ stage positioning became more apparent as the band continued through their naturally ‘Arms’ heavy set list, joined by touring members Rory Doyle on drums and Glenn Keating on keys. The new songs have a deliberately soulful simplicity about them, and a heavy emphasis on the rhythmic groove. Phillips’ bass lines were more in the forefront of the sound, most notably in recent singles ‘The Upswing’ and ‘Out of Love’, which took on more personality in live performance than in their respective recordings. Older favourites ‘Eve, the Apple of My Eye’ and ‘Flame’ were similarly streamlined, and these refined arrangements were both interesting and surprisingly engaging.

My gig mate for the evening described her impression of the show as “like Bell X1 smoking pot”, while I dubbed the sound “r&b twice-removed”. Either way, the predominant mood for the evening was very mellow, a bit slower and more relaxed than I might have expected. This new vibe was perhaps slightly uncomfortable due to its relative novelty, but overall, it’s a good look for Bell X1, and it worked brilliantly in the favourable acoustics of Lincoln Hall. It’s also worth noting here that the overall sound in the venue was fantastic. The volume, for once, wasn’t overwhelmingly loud at the front of the stage, which greatly benefitted the sound clarity of the individual instruments and vocal lines. (Bravo to sound engineer Phil Hayes and the sound crew at Lincoln Hall.)

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They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and this show seemed to fly by quickly for everyone involved. After playing their American hit ‘The Great Defector’, frontman Paul Noonan apparently forgot that it was to be the final song in the set proper. “Oh, yeah, we’re going to play this game,” he said, acknowledging the awkwardness of leaving stage ahead of the perfunctory encore. The band didn’t keep us waiting long before they returned for a gentle version of ‘Careful What You Wish For’. This was followed by an expanded rendition of ‘The Ribs of a Broken Umbrella”, which gave Rory Doyle (who has also toured with Hozier) a perfect opportunity to show off his impressive skill and rhythmic precision on the kit. Bell X1 have found themselves a regular and dependable show closer in ‘The End is Nigh’, whose lyrical question “or will the wrong guy get the codes?” feels somehow more compelling in the present day than it did when the song was released back in 2013.

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Bell X1 will be wrapping up their American tour as this review goes to press, but if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic, keep your eyes open for possible live dates this summer. The band are currently scheduled to play the Summer Series at Trinity College in Dublin on the 8th of July, with Scottish alt-rock band Frightened Rabbit. You can look back at TGTF’s extensive past coverage of Bell X1 through here.

After the cut: Bell X1’s set list.
Continue reading Live Review:

Bell X1 Set List
Bad Skin Day
Fake Memory
Bring Me a Fire King
Out of Love
My First Born for a Song
The Upswing
Eve, the Apple of My Eye
I Go Where You Go
Rocky Took a Lover
Sons and Daughters
Let’s Dance (David Bowie cover)
The Great Defector
Careful What You Wish For
The Ribs of a Broken Umbrella
The End is Nigh

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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