Bear’s Den are an alt-folk trio descending from London, who have amassed a following over the years, thanks to their knack for writing heartfelt, catchy tunes, their soaring vocal harmonies and of course, their notoriously magnificent facial hair. They kicked off their tour – in support of their debut album Islands – in style at the Institute.
First up was a fellow London based artist, the enigmatic and upcoming singer-songwriter Rukhsana Merise [6/10]. She was accompanied by a guitarist and light percussionist, who took to the stage first and began playing. Rukhsana then made her less-than-graceful arrival on stage, banging her head on a speaker on her approach to the microphone. Luckily it didn’t deter her, and she delivered a solid soulful vocal performance, despite some intermittent head rubbing. Merise’s vocal delivery is measured and somewhat restrained, but it was her guitarist that set her apart from the mass of female singer-songwriters performing these days. With some offbeat rhythms and jazzy chords he gave the act a distinctive sound. Who knew a guitar could have so many harmonics.
Then came Bear’s Den [8/10], opening with ‘Elysium’ – the lead single from their recent debut album Islands – starting off with steady, soothing guitar then ascending to climax with a flurry of horns and atmospheric fuzz. It was a perfect opener, managing to translate the development of the band in just one song. As a result, it was quickly apparent that the bearded folksters had come a long way since the shows surrounding the release of their Agape EP. With the help of two new band members playing an array of horns and synthesisers, and the addition of guitar pedals and drum machines, the band put on an expansive, explosive performance, challenging preconceptions of what a folk concert entailed. Songs like ‘Think of England’ and the epic ‘Sahara’ (which closed the show), were prime examples of the bands progression, with these new songs and shiny tools at their disposal, the once-trio manage to create atmosphere and intensity like never before, wrapping the audience in an embrace of reverb and harmony. Whilst darker tracks ‘Mother’ and ‘When You Break’, were heavier and more abrasive with some scuzzy electro-bass.
But in many ways, The Den are still at their best going back to their roots: as an acoustic trio. An unplugged rendition of ‘Sophie’, performed with not one, but two banjos was breath-taking. Not to mention the moment towards the end of the set, where the band ventured into the crowd for a memorable acoustic performance of ‘Bad Blood’. The crowd was stunned into silence, and singer Andrew Davie’s heart-wrenching vocals were much more affecting without the interference of a microphone. The audience’s appreciation was visible, and Davie (possibly the most humble and grateful frontman of all time) seemed taken aback: “it’s crazy that you all seemed to like that, it’s so much easier to do down there, there’s so much less that can go wrong” gesturing to the array of equipment surrounding him.
Bear’s Den have grown up a lot over the years, but they clearly haven’t forgotten where they came from. They are, in essence, the Jennifer Lopez of the alt-folk world. The songwriting quality and consistency has remained the same, the uplifting harmonies are still ever-present, and the more sonically expansive songs are received just as readily by the fans; as was made clear by the wide-spanning requests from the audience, ranging from the rock influenced ‘Sahara’, to the lullaby ‘Sophie’. They played a flawless set packed with highlights, where almost every song could have been a closer, and left the audience in awe, wanting more.