Isobel Campbell at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room (3 February ’20)


It was off to the Phil’s Music Room to see Scots songstress Isobel Campbell on a cold and windy winter evening.

Campbell started out with Belle And Sebastian, but despite being a founder member only sang lead on a single song on one album, the classic The Boy With The Arab Strap from September 1998.

I would have first become aware of her, at least vaguely, only a few months later as I was given that record by my friend and colleague Suki at my next birthday. However, I didn’t really give her much thought until she started releasing duet albums with the husky-voiced Mark Lanegan.

I bought their first record Ballad Of The Broken Seas as it was released in February 2006, also snapping up the following two albums second hand, although a few years after they were first issued.

By that point I’d already acquired her solo debut Amorino, while I added her other LP under her own name, and two as The Gentle Waves, late last year for less than £4 each once I knew I was going to be attending this gig.

Nina Violet (terrible photo, sorry!)

There’s a brand new album too, but annoyingly this was due for release four days after the show, having been stuck in record company limbo for several years, meaning I’d only managed to stream the few songs that had been made available in advance. Not really my preferred way to listen to music.

Support came from Nina Violet from Massachusetts, now residing in California, who hasn’t released a proper album since 2011, but is apparently in the midst of recording a follow-up. So, I had only given a cursory listen to a few of her tracks online before the show.

She took to the stage alone, armed only with an electric guitar. However, she was able to captivate the whole crowd with her presence and talent.

She kicked off with All Your Own, the opening track on 2011’s We’ll Be Alright, with its title track following a sarcastic comment about the quality of hotels she had been experiencing on this tour to date.

She talked about working as a boat mechanic in California, before playing a gorgeous new song, whose name I have no idea of, sadly.

She most reminded me of Mary Gauthier, but less country. I have just discovered that she first broke through when working with Willy Mason, and is classically trained on viola, which came into play later in the evening.

She has toured with Radiohead and Beth Orton, with the latter also reflected in her sound.

Most of her set was drawn from We’ll Be Alright, with each number typically being minor key, fairly slow and a little downbeat – bare bones folk. She’s certainly very talented, and surely has a wider potential audience than is currently aware of her. Having said all that, she didn’t quite grab me fully.

She closed with All Or Nothing At All, from a 2018 cassette release. As that one’s not on Spotify, see here:

After a short interval, Isobel Campbell came on stage, accompanied by Nina Violet, as well as Andrew Pattie on guitar and drummer Peter Dombernowsky, who has played a lot with Giant Sand.

She started with Willow’s Song, a tune originally from The Wicker Man, a movie I really must get around to watching sometime soon. She had included it on 2006’s Milkwhite Sheets album.

As that, like much of her material, isn’t on Spotify, here’s a link to it:

There were quite a few songs from the imminent There Is No Other, while early on she played another new song, Do Or Die, which I don’t think will be on the record. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to be reminded of Yoda due to the line in it, “Do what you will, there is no try”.

Nina Violet took out her viola for the first time for Below Zero, which featured some surprisingly feisty words, such as:

“Tired of all the bullshit, playing nice. Shadow boxing, skating on thin ice”

Then came the rather bossa nova-esque Rainbow off the new record.

The now LA-based Isobel’s breathy, subtle vocals most remind me of 60’s folkie Vashti Bunyan, with her sound also really reflecting the likes of Shirley Collins, an avowed major influence on Milkwhite Sheets.

Isobel Campbell and band

There was a subtly Indian (of course) twang to another track off the new album, The National Bird Of India, before she asked if it was worth her while in visiting The Cavern Club, as she’s clearly a massive Beatles fan. I couldn’t quite tell what advice she was given from punters!

City Of Angels, the new album’s opener, brought to mind Chris Isaak a little, but felt like a bit of a mis-step to me.

Another new song, Counting Fireflies, was one of many to feature Interesting percussion work, with there being a number of things played on stage throughout the set. This was one of the few (or only?) gigs I’ve been to where the lead instrument was (often) a cello, after all.

At the midway point of her set, she started raiding her albums with Mark Lanegan, with Nina Violet sometimes taking on the Lanegan role.

Isobel Campbell

In fact, Nina sang Something To Believe from 2008’s Sunday At Devil Dirt, with Isobel providing a fine whistle solo.

The last song of the main set was Hang On, another originally recorded with Lanegan, although it doesn’t appear on any of their three albums. This made me think of The Velvet Underground.

After a very brief retreat to their dressing room, all four returned to play their very good cover of Tom Petty’s Runnin’ Down A Dream, a curious choice that works really well.

The final number was inevitably Isobel’s Belle And Sebastian moment, Is It Wicked Not To Care?, bringing the evening to a fine close.

Tonight’s t-shirt

I honoured her Scottish indie pop roots by sporting my green Teenage Fanclub t-shirt. I was pleased to spot a couple of other band tees in evidence, in the form of Steve Wynn and Spiritualized.

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Here is much of the music from the show on Spotify:

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