Live Review: Tubular Bells for Two. St George’s, Bristol 30 April 2019

When I saw something called “Tubular Bells For Two” in the listings for St George’s, I thought it had to be worth investigating. Mike Oldfield’s album is one of my absolute favourites and will always feature in my all-time top 10 albums – I usually have it on my phone and do listen to it fairly frequently.

It turns out that TB For Two is a performance by two Australian multi-instrumentalists (Aiden Roberts and Tom Bamford), something that started out as a bit of a joke but led to performances at the Edinburgh Festival and has now been running for over 10 years. Bamford has replaced the original Daniel Holdsworth.

Support came from Gypsy Fingers, apparently an “ethereal folk-rock” outfit. As it turned out, the guitarist is Luke Oldfield – son of one Mike Oldfield…

They were OK – I’ve definitely seen worse support acts. Oldfield is a good guitarist and singer, Victoria Oldfield (his wife I assume, seeing as a quick google only mentions Luke being Mike’s son) sang well (if a bit quietly, which I assume was down to the standard poor mix for a support act) and played piano, guitar and French horn. I couldn’t hear the bassist much, but he seemed quite well into what he was playing. The drummer (in only his second gig with them) was pretty good.

There wasn’t anything particularly outstanding to report about their set, but it was nice enough. One track, “The Bay”, stood out for me with a particularly nice sound to it, and the last one featured a slightly unexpected guitar sample wig-out at the end, sounding unlike anything else they’d played.

Then onto the main feature – which was one of the shortest main sets I’ve seen, but obviously naturally limited by the length of the original album.

The stage was set up with two keyboard rigs (two keyboards each), half a dozen guitars (acoustic, electric and bass), a drum kit, a mandolin and (unsurprisingly) some Tubular Bells.

I was very interested to see how they were actually going to do it, and it’s obvious that there is some electronic trickery – it would be impossible for just two people to play something with that many layers of sound without using some loops. But the loops were all recorded on the spot, so it’s still quite a performance. I imagine there is quite an art to playing a guitar or keyboard riff and starting the loop recording at exactly the right time, then stopping it accurately, and then kicking it off and stopping it. There may have been some assistance in stopping the loops from the sound desk, I’m not sure – they did acknowledge the person/people on the desk at the end, so they obviously have some part to play.

But the use of loops shouldn’t detract from what was a hugely impressive performance. There’s plenty of instrument swapping, all of the loop management, and quite a bit of quick work – playing a keyboard part and quickly leaning over to hit a cymbal with one hand and then back to the keyboard. One of them was even hitting a cymbal with the head of his guitar.

Some of the instrument changes did seem quite frantic, and I imagine that it’s actually quite stressful to perform. There was a tech issue halfway through the first part, with Aiden Roberts’ guitar effects pedal playing up – Bamford repeated a few bars while Roberts scrabbled around on his knees to fix it, and they were able to carry on – but I bet that added to the stress levels a bit!

One other thing to point out is the challenge in playing something that the audience know so well – there’s no room for improvisation or leaving bits out without the pedants noticing. Most people in the audience will have listened to the album many times* and will know it intimately, presenting the performers with even more of a challenge. And I think they did a damn good job of it – it was a very good recreation of Tubular Bells, but it wasn’t note-for-note and it couldn’t possibly be. Mike Oldfield spent an age in the studio creating the multi-track recording and that would be impossible for 2 people to re-create unless they used backing tracks, which would make the performance relatively pointless**. The “odd bit” from the second side was definitely heavier than the album, but I really enjoyed it.

* As it happens, they did ask if there was anyone there who had never heard the original album, and surprisingly there were quite a few people – as they said, that was probably quite a bizarre experience for them.

** Apparently they were once asked by a German why they didn’t just use more musicians…

What can I say about the music? Most people have heard it (and if you haven’t then you really should give it a go) so there’s not much I can say, given there are no radical re-interpretations of it.

The opening piano-led passage, made famous by the Exorcist, is slightly haunting. The classic Viv Stanshall-narrated conclusion to the first part features what may be one of the best bass riffs in existence. There are rocky bits, there are delicate bits. The slightly odd bit from the second side (or “track 2” for those who have only ever heard it on CD or mp3) was impressive, with Aiden Roberts showing that he’s an accomplished drummer as well as guitarist and keyboard player, giving the small drum kit a damn good trashing.

They finished with a rousing version of the Hornpipe, with the audience clapping along, wrapping up to a well-deserved great ovation.

Hugely impressive, and well worth a look if you get a chance – on the assumption that you like Tubular Bells of course, although it’s an impressive performance in its own right.

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