Belly return to London after 20 year hiatus

Tanya Donelly's '90s alt. rock group return to London on first UK tour for 20 years

(Image: © Lorne Thomson \/ Redferns)

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In the first half of the Nineties, Belly were pretty much as surprised as anyone to see their debut album Star sell two million and the single Feed The Tree become the constant darling of MTV’s Alternative Nation video show. Having tested the waters outside the band she’d grown up in, Throwing Muses, by playing in The Breeders with Pixies’ Kim Deal, Boston’s Tanya Donelly had formed her own quartet to showcase her songs. Their perfect and rare blend of pop hooks, indie angst and rock ballast impishly caught the spirit of a time when American guitars were all the rage as long as they were “alternative”. If you could write an actual song with a unique voice too, as Donelly could, the current was on your side. Yet it all got a bit giddy and follow-up album King failed to rule, so after a world tour supporting REM, Donelly called time. A solo career, motherhood and other interests took over.

Two decades on, Belly return, rather randomly, realising they’re all still pals and enjoy playing. This isn’t a big, hyped, cash-grab reunion like so many of late: in fact it’s so DIY and self-managed that the band play two sets to save the bother of organising a support act. They’re almost insanely self-effacing regarding the ageing process, with guitarist Tom Gorman advising the crowd to let the babysitter know the night’s timings and bassist Gail Greenwood (who had a post-Belly shift with L7) comically bemoaning the bright lights. Yet as soon as sound issues are resolved after a shrill first number, the years drop away and Belly are again an ablaze mix of emotional depth and banging fun.

A twenty-song night confirms that Star was a stone classic stuffed with gems and King was better than we tend to recall. The two new numbers nurture hope against hope that this isn’t just a one-off tour. It seems a travesty that this band were sidelined for so long, their swoops from delicacy to roaring power handled with stylish aplomb. The “hits” such as Slow Dog and Seal My Fate cause both moshing and memory-lane melancholy, while Gepetto – as euphorically crafted a song as any of its decade – is a riot. Red induces mass yelp-alongs. Belly often sound like impeccably controlled hysteria.

Feed The Tree brings levels of bouncing which suggest the babysitters have been forgotten, and Low Red Moon is a dark, delicious drama. While it’s Greenwood who works to get the crowd going, all grunge stances and fist-pumps, it’s the ever-modest Donelly who – without trying – exudes charisma, so much vocal and musical magic pouring out of her breezy frame. She later suggests that this probably is a hello-again-and-farewell tour, as everyone’s moved on in their lives. Yet the rapturous reception, and the reminder that today’s bands of this ilk struggle to hold a candle to Belly, might prompt a rethink. They were and remain one of the greats. Tonight, again, you could feel it in your gut.

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Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.