Shall I tell you what sometime surprises me. It sometimes surprises me that you can’t get tickets for Bellowhead (that doesn’t surprise me at all) but that a group like Faustus, including Paul Sartin, (from Bellowhead), Benji Kirkpatrick (from Bellowhead) and Saul Rose (not from Bellowhed, but has played with Eliza Carthy and other big folk names) play to small, not quite full venues. Does Bellowhead now have that kind of mainstream appeal which means that people want to hear Bellowhead in order to say that they’ve heard Bellowhead, but don't want to hear people doing the same kind of thing that Bellowhead does, just as well? Or that there are people who want to hear a twelve man band doing bouncy punky jokey irreverent creative silly versions of traditional English folk songs, but won’t get out of bed to hear three men doing punk jokey irreverent...doing the same thing, basically?
Obviously, I’ve always thought of Bellowhead as “Spiers and Boden and their friends”, but after tonight I can see what a large chunk of what they do comes from Faustus as well. Would it be fair to say that the story telling and engagement with traditional songs comes from Jon and John but the wild gypsy circus stylings come from Benji and Paul? Probably not. I shall move on.
Unlike most guitar (Benji) fiddle (Paul) and squeeze box (Saul) outfits, all three performers take it in turns to sing, and all of them are very good at it. (They can also turn their voices to close harmony for an impressive Copperish Brisk Lad.)
They open up with a volley of nautical numbers: Benji does The Golden Vanity (about the cabin boy who sinks the Spanish ship while sailing in the lowland low); Paul does a slightly unfamiliar Captain Ward and Saul does the Old Miser.
The joke about preferring miserable songs, and apologizing for the odd happy ending, has perhaps been a little overworked, bit Paul’s version of the Captain’s Apprentice (which ends with the aforementioned Captain getting hung for beating his apprentice to death with a spike) does have an almost camp level of grimness to it. Things don’t notably cheer up for a slowed down version of the Deserter; even when Prince Albert comes along and says that the soldier doesn’t have to be shot after all, its delivered in a tone of voice which seems to say “This Never Happens". We get a wonderfully dead-pan version of a traditional bit of single-entendre lifted off Voice of the People about a farmer who lets a young lady have a go on his Threshing Machine. (”I puts down me hand for to cut off the steam / But the chaff had blown out of my threshing machine.”) But it might just be that the highpoint of the evening (particularly for those of us who were still on a Nic Jone high) was Saul leading the group in an extended Humpbacked Whale (properly Balina Whalers) complete with the verse about skinning kangeroos.
Folk music, as a wise person once said, is about three universal themes: Sex, Death, and Young Women Putting On Boys Clothes and Joining the Navy. So would it be true to say that in conjunction with Spiers, Boden and the others, Benji and Paul do the sex, but when they are with Saul, they major on the death? Almost certainly not. So let’s just say that this was a lovely evening of well chosen traditional music, given exciting, but not overly revisionist arrangements by an ensemble with a great on stage rapport.
And start lobbying for a full dress Bellowhead version of Balina Whalers.