When Rivers Meet + Arielle @ The Asylum, Birmingham – Friday 12th May 2023


Reviewed by Paul H Birch with photos by Martin Tierney.

Looking up from the bar, a rhythm section’s just started pounding a heavy driving beat, the drummer’s particularly impressive, and after a minute or so a rather diminutive figure walks on stage exhaling squeals from her guitar. As she starts singing, we soon establish that this here’s the title track off her latest album, ‘73.

The woman’s name is Arielle, and she wearing what I initially presume to be a kaftan, but it’s long flowing arms look more like some medieval made garb. Later on, when she plays acoustic guitar I’ll be reminded of the younger Nancy Wilson, currently I’m reminded of Brian May during Queen’s glam rock days. It’s fitting since his company make her guitar. Old git that I am, not because I can recall such 70s acts, but that my eyesight’s fading, and slowly it dawns on me that she’s actually decked out in the same garments as on ‘73’s front cover.

Fashion tips aside, one’s impressed that the sound her guitar makes is unique, too many modern guitarists these days sound alike, are and just technically better than each other. Live, Arielle is also adding quite a lot of blues rocking to her electric guitar playing, and it suits the expectations of the audience gathered here tonight. Second number in, the rhythm section’s thumping away again and I’m worried repetition’s going to set in quick, however, when she sings out “Baby!” it’s a cue for things to heat up, and she’s going to take us ‘Somewhere Slow’. While not quite as brisk and breezy as the studio version her interplay with her drummer (who also happens to be female, based on my now confirmed aged vision).

With her next number she expands her stylisations, there are jazz chords in the main themes, and some long soloing sections where it’s almost as if she’s having a constructive musical conversation. That virtually no expression has crossed her face yet that seems appropriate, although it jars a little with a line that sounds like: ”Why do you got to be so beautiful?” when there’s so little passion in evidence. As if reading my mind, she exclaims “Well, hi! My name is Arielle” and proceeds to tell us a little about herself, now coming across with a warmer personality. She’s been living out in Nashville and with acoustic guitar proceeds to pick out a country folk number that suits her clear toned voice.

There’s pretty much a packed crowd watching this support act and there’s applause following the song’s conclusion is highly enthusiastic. Her bass player cuts in on that, and she cherry picks some classic rock chord patterns over it, the number coming across like a heavy rock Bangles with charm. A further guitar change has her introducing her “sexy band”, and while we’re told they’re English, the mic distorts too much to decipher actual names, but we do find out the name of her guitar, Two-tone, she and the six string having been together some sixteen years strong.

As the bass player funks it up, her guitar reciprocates with wah-wah tremors for a fine reading of instrumental ‘Kalypso’, taking Beck tonal stylisations alongside some heavy rock and roll. The acoustic ballad, with an almost reggae meets Celtic rock touch, proves a fine contrast, playfully ending with a few bars of Irish jigging. Then, for one final number we get a tune that’s a bright AOR power-popped number, that sounds like Boston meet R.E.M, though my partner-in-crime this evening suggests Deacon Blue meets Dolly Parton. Either way, the US country/folk side of things prove to be her strengths tonight, much of the crowd seemingly already well aware of Arielle’s repertoire.

Some thirty minutes or so later, lights go down, spooky noises, distant screams and gothic murmurings all get PA airtime, before the main act make their return visit to another packed house at The Asylum. Amazement, excitement and confidence worn equally across their faces at all times, by Aaron and Grace Bond, the driving force that is When Rivers Meet. Still, they continue to plough their own creative path veering between roots rock, heavy blues and darker folk elements and tonight roll the dice, gambling with new number ‘Play My Game’ to open their set. True, it’s been released as a single but familiarity rarely breeds contempt in today’s heritage-dominated rock market. The risk is worth it, the crowd with them from the get-go, one of those spiritual gatherings of extended family between band and audience, that I always feel like acting out the role of gate-crasher to, despite my very much enjoying much of the proceedings. Though when Grace Bond sings: “Kiss me!” its hard not to. The song is a powerful shuffle of hard rock with ethereal voicings.

Aaron Bond stands legs astride just off-centre stage guitar in hand, his hair a little longer as if to emphasise the rockier stance they’ve suggest their forthcoming new album will take. His wife has a stage right preference more tonight, despite which she’ll certainly ensure she’s not a wallflower. Song over, she removes a shawl top to reveal black mini-dress with matching thigh boots.

His face obscured by his kit most of the night, drummer James Fox continues in that roll, while there’s a new bearded bass player in tow, who makes more use of the stage than his predecessor, and there’s a lot to take in tonight, with an extensive list of tunes to be played. ‘Never Coming Home’ makes a return to the setlist, Grace resting an arm on her husband’s shoulder as she sings into her mic, before dancing away.

This evening, Mrs Bond is witnessed performing a series of raised elbow, gesticulating finger dance movements, while her male companion is seen throwing a number of two-handed devil’s horn shapes. Neither being a criminal offence, and with that warm, sunny full chords lead into ‘Did I Break The Law’, the pairing making full use of the stage. From here on, one will begin to more clearly denote certain arrangement differences to songs, and while it’s only a more stomping rock version of the number offered here it does afford the opportunity to unleash tall belches of smoke either side of the stage, a staple of live rock from yesteryear making a comeback and raising a surprised smile to the face. Audience participation has raised hands clapping along, then with a drum roll, followed by a siren scream from Grace the smoke machines pump out consecutively three times as the song climaxes.

‘Take Me to The River’ is another number performed heavier blues boogies than previously, Aaron initiating the lead vocals, Grace joining in come the chorus while also playing slide mandolin. An audience with a pretty much even division of sexes bops happily, singing along. Following a guitar change to acoustic, Aaron asks “How you all doing?” but there’s no chance to reply as Grace declares “It is so good to be back!” Then, lost in each other, or continuing to put on a bloody good act, they perform the lovers murder ballad ‘Bury My Body’. Her whistling the melody is a nice touch, but the latter full band rearrangement intrudes on the song’s intimacy, its mournful evocativeness returned when she solos on violin.

Picking out different mandolin and electric guitars, the close harmony ‘I Will Fight’ moves from chilled folk pop to chiming rock, another violin solo proving just as charismatic. Armed with cigar box guitar, Aaron clicks into Jimmy Page mode for some slide-driven delta blues, applying echo and feedback to good vantage, Grace narrating in verse, with swooping vocals impressing latterly as she strides across the stage.

The tempo builds further with ‘My Babe Says That He Loves Me’ over funky bass, staccato chords, coming on as moody brooding rock, pre-coital in expectations then delivering on expectation. ‘Battleground’ hammers that feeling home, lyrically ‘Like What You See’ perhaps coming a little too late. ‘Make A Grown Man Cry’ throbs hard, then they dip back in time, relatively speaking, for the heart-wrenching ‘Tomorrow’, sweet choppy Telecaster chords with added warmth in the vocal harmonies. ‘Shoot The Breeze’ is heavy lurching blues that finds time for Adam, their bass player to play a brief trumpet solo, then it’s full-on with ‘Free Man’ – A testament to the band’s independent nature, it’s wam-bam banging-and-a-crashing boogie with some intensely powerful shimmery slide work, while ‘Walking On The Wire’ has power chords slamming down hard, particularly when the song climaxes.

Grace asks if it’s alright that they play a new number, one about their relationship and how they first met, and they perform recent single ‘Perfect Stranger’ – Live, tonight, it’s like a heavy cha-cha number; there’s added soul where at times I’m reminded of White On Blond-era Texas or even Duffy. It’s infectious, occasionally ambitiously dramatic, raging hard during the choruses and the impossible achieved as Grace emits a scream of sensual virtuosity, a brief crash of cymbal, the band finishing as one.

“It’s great to be back at The Asylum – Thanks for much!” says the lady with the voice, and with that we can sense time is drawing on. Certainly, there’s been no shortage of numbers tonight, and they end their main set with the Zeppelin-fuelled ‘Lost & Found’, Grace banging away on a tambourine, and halfway through Arielle stepping on stage – a smile glowing across her face visibly – as she takes a solo, the crowd pumping their fists in the air.

Encores follow, and they don’t skimp on them. First, we’re serenaded with ‘Talking In My Sleep’, a roustabout fist-punching ‘Testify’ proves another soulful interpretation, Grace Bond descending to do a brief walkabout while smoke billows back up on stage. On returning she grabs her violin; guitars are turned to 11 and ‘Want Your Love’ is delivered like a wider-ranging voiced Siouxsie Sioux fronting Motorhead on a blues number. Heavy chugging riffs, fluid solos, voices powerful to the last, with stage lights on full beam as the smoke machines give it one last blast for old times’ sake.

Bows taken, they prepare to leave the stage, only to be prevented by a representative of the UK Blues Awards who announces they’ve not only won Band of the Year, but have been entered into the Hall of Fame, for winning consecutively for three years. The amazement and excitement at appearing live on stage earlier tonight is still three, as thrilled they receive the awards.

Where do When Rivers Meet go from here, apart from the next tour date? In but a few years they’ve moved from live support duo, to their own headline club tour, now adding more band-for-your-buck by putting on more of a live show via the smoke machines. With a new album due, there’s going to have to be an inevitable culling of songs for live performance, and even tonight we’ve heard how they rearranged some. The Bonds have made a valid stand for creating music independently, live and on record. For them to continue to progress beyond this and grow in stature, is it possible to do so without heavyweight backing behind them? Let’s hope so. Small or large, the venue, there’s always a sense of intimacy to proceedings.