During the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition at The Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, Geordie singer-songwriter Beth Jeans Houghton had an epiphany; inspired by the Thin White Duke’s taste for reinvention, this was the inception of a new persona that resulted in the outlandish, merkin wearing malevolence of Du Blonde. Leaving behind the psychedelic folk of 2012 debut Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, Houghton’s new incarnation delivered with the primal, garage-punk angst and balladeering élan of last month’s excellent follow up Welcome Back To Milk.
With the sweaty sardine tin of the Louie steadily becoming full in the minutes leading up to Du Blonde’s appearance, things are positively tropical by the time Houghton takes to the stage and enquires “Who’s warm?”. Wearing a green Hawaii 84 American football jersey, tartan skirt and presumably sans merkin, Houghton leads her three fellow musicians into the punk thrash and doomy drama of the enthusiastically received ‘If You’re Legal’.
Feeding off the audience’s clear enjoyment of the opening track, Houghton makes a wry comparison to a poorly attended performance in Leeds the previous evening – “The people who were there were lovely” – before the bass-heavy swagger of the new album’s lead single ‘Black Flag’. Named after the Californian hardcore punk band and bolstered by some busy lead licks from the pogoing guitarist, the song perhaps best encapsulates the dynamic sass of the Du Blonde persona.
Switching tempo, ‘Hunter’ is a warm, harmony drenched piece of tasteful power balladry and, extending into a stirring vocal delivery, the first real evidence we see of Houghton’s ample vocal gifts. Emotive but measured, Houghton’s rich and dexterous voice soars atop her bandmates’ three way backing harmonies. Her versatility is further evidenced in ‘Mind Is On My Mind’; amongst it’s clanging chords and descending guitar lines, Houghton delivers rap-like vocals during the song’s early verses.
Far more cordial than the striking cover to Welcome Back To Milk would have you believe, Houghton is a charming and benevolent presence of garrulous inclusivity throughout. She mentions that her auntie and uncle are in the audience, puts a shout out for cousin Gemma (“a real babe” and “single”), briefly complements a girl in the front row on her dungarees and implores her guitarist to showcase the terrifying face he uses to “scare all dogs and children”. She even feels at ease enough to get scatological; after describing how she was sick before going on stage, she informs the crowd that she has recently suffered diarrhoea and how a recent bout of constipation left her not having had “a shit in six weeks”.
Other highlights come in the form of ‘After The Show’, a class ballad of swaying, sorrow-tinged romanticism that sees an earnest Houghton making demands for “a little of your respect” and to “let go of your ego”. Within a rocking, crisp cover of Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind’, Black Francis’ calm enquires as to the whereabouts of his brain are transformed into unhinged imploration at the hands of Houghton’s impassioned vocal. ‘Chips To Go’, meanwhile, is a blistering slice of whirling guitar mischief and features Houghton’s angriest vocal performance.
Returning to the stage for an encore, Houghton invites any members of the audience to join her on stage before ‘Hard To Please’; several people take her up on her offer including the ubiquitous Big Jeff and the frontal view of a large, hairy man in trance-like bout of crazed headbanging offers an interesting insight into the shared experience of hundreds of bands during their visits to Bristol throughout the years.
During a sharp, 45 minute set, Du Blonde play eleven songs without a weak track amongst them. That epiphanic moment at the V&A Museum now looks like something positively inspired.
(Photograph – Alex Robbins)