Gig review: Belly at Leeds University Stylus

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“Settle in: it’s going to be a long night,” jokes Tanya Donelly at the start of Belly’s second gig in 21 years.

The Rhode Island quartet’s front-woman isn’t wrong. Over two hours the band play approximately three-quarters of their entire recorded output. This covers two albums and four years for which Donelly was 4AD’s golden girl.

Co-founder of art-rockers Throwing Muses, she left to launch The Breeders with Kim Deal, before eventually quitting to form her own band.

Belly achieved far more commercial success than either of her previous outfits but when they imploded after an all too brief period of productivity she released a series of low-key country-rock albums before turning to an alternative career as a doula.

It’s therefore testament to the quality of their two records, combined with a healthy dose of nostalgia, that the band are playing to a near sell-out crowd. As they open with the bass heavy ‘Dusted’ the years slip away, with the band sharing the kind of gang mentality that suggests they never parted ways.

This mentality is one of their key strengths: Donelly being the calm, focused centre-point that’s orbited by the punk-rock chaos and audience baiting banter of bassist Gail Greenwood. She introduced a heavier sound to the band when she joined for second album King and this forms the template for much of tonight’s material.

These renditions are often tougher than their early recorded output yet they never sacrifice their core appeal.

These renditions are often tougher than their early recorded output yet they never sacrifice their core appeal, ‘Slow Dog’ and almost-hit ‘Gepetto’ maintaining their gothic indie-pop witchiness. Full of lyrics about women with dogs tied to their backs and silver toothed squirrels, the twisted adult fairytales are unashamedly female in narrative while lacking the more overt aggression of their riot grrrl contemporaries.

They’re nonetheless capable of rocking out, with ‘Red’ and ‘Super-Connected’ giving Greenwood plenty of opportunities to thrash her mane of hair. New track ‘Punish’ (“we’re not punishing you as an audience, hopefully…”) follows in this tradition by being comparatively straightforward indie-rock.

It’s when they’re at their gentlest that they’re often the toughest, or lyrically the meanest. ‘Bees’, which is restarted after Donelly initially misses the opening high note, offers a moment of calm while the lightly psychedelic ‘Spaceman’ sees lead guitarist Tom Gorman double-up on harmonica. Penultimate country-rock track ‘Thief’ is arguably the set and heart stealer, opening acoustically it eventually erupts into an uplifting outro that luxuriates in Greenwood’s tender harmonies.

It’s an overdue reminder of just how good the band were and, with new material on the cards, an opportunity to extricate them from indie-pop’s forgotten history.

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