Saturday, November 17, 2012


Colston Hall, Bristol




They aren’t folk music any more, are they? They may not actually be music any more. They are a different thing altogether.

They are in the actual charts. They've been on Radio 2. On a proper programme, as well, not just Mike Harding. Twice. They used to finish festivals; now they are a festival. A Bellowhead concert is a celebration of the fact that you are at a Bellowhead concert. We all know to point in roughly the right directions when the chap is going (all together now) UP to the rigs, DOWN to jigs, UP to the rigs of London Town and to turn to each other to yell that, should you ever come to New York's shore you'd have to get up early to be smarter than a


“Mak shau! Mak Shau!” as a very wise man once told an up and coming boy-band. Bellowhead are a show, not just a concert.  Jon Boden is a singer, a multi-instrumentalist and when he gets on the stage his personality is somehow dispersed through the other ten musicians, so it's taking nothing away from them to say that Bellowhead is him.  Sam Sweeney, for example. A serious young fiddler who plays  old English Christmas carols in chapels: put him in in Bellowhead, and he ends up playing the fiddle on his back, pogoing, whipping out his northumbrian pipes and corpsing when the filthy sea shanty about little Lucy Lucket who washes in a bucket turns briefly into a Sunday School hymn. Boden’s own performance and body language is sixteen or seventeen times more extreme than when he is just being Spiers-and, but the songs never get completely submerged under everything which is going on around them. (What, never? Well, hardly ever.) He sort of bends his whole body into an arch at the end of Lilibulero (yes, Lilibulero — want to make something of it?) and snarls out “now I’ve been with the devil the whole of my life but I never knew hell til I met your wife…” at half speed.

There are basically three different acts on offer. (Pay attention: I am going to attempt to do music criticism, and will probably end up revealing that I don't know my Northumbrians from my English Smalls.) The first act onto the stage tonight is, for want of a better term,  Mad Bellowhead. Mad Bellowhead can be fantastic, but they also have a pretty low hit rate. (We missed Cholera Camp tonight, but be honest, did anyone miss Spectre Review or Widow's Curse …?) Their first number was Black Beetle Pie, about which I had serious doubts. Jon started out seated at the back of the stage, delivering the song through a megaphone for reasons which still slightly escape me. It was hard to track down the actual song in the arrangement. (It comes over very much better on the recording.) You can see that the title, and indeed the subject matter would appeal to their sense of the bizarre. It was followed by the similarly impenetrable Old Dun Cow. Clever? Yes. Mad? Definitely. Straight onto my playlist of songs to listen to over and over and play to friends who don't really like folk music? Not so much.  

But then mercifully, Jon announces a song about having your girlfriend deported to Australia and Fun Bellowhead take to the stage. Ten Thousand Miles Away is the song that Chris Evans played twice in succession, and it’s the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do best, or, in fact, the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do, with the raucous sing-along foreground revelling in just what a lot of bloody good tunes Anon could come up with, but which bears multiple re-listening because of the amount of fiddly bits going on in the background. It instantly takes its place as one of the songs without which no Bellowhead concert is complete. They also unveiled a very good Byker Hill (showing some Mad influence, but not enough to drown the melody) as well as touching most of their greatest hits bases (Whiskey is the Life of Man, Haul Away, London Town, New York Girls, the instrumental where they all jump in the air, etcetera.) 

I have always felt that, if the only folk music you like is Bellowhead, then you are probably missing the point of Bellowhead: like the person who eats the sage and onion stuffing without the actual turkey or goes to Last Night of the Proms without having heard any of the previous seventy five. It is, after all, a lot of very serioius musicians who we are watching being crazy and extreme and silly, people who deleted more about folk music than I'll  ever type. And by the end of the evening the original incarnation of the band, let's call them Folkie Bellowhead, had been given some time on the stage. The Wife of Usher's Well was a very impressive piece of theatre; the whole ensemble singing together with that pulsating rhythm that Bellowhead do so well, with some twangs of 80s Dylan over the top. It was shame you couldn't hear any of the actual words: it's the sort of ghost story that I'd like to have heard Jon getting his folk-teeth into. So the biggest smile of the evening came, not from the shanties and the dancing tunes or the crazy stuff, but from the sensitively iconoclastic reading of Thousands or More. Regular readers will remember that I was moved to hear your genuine original Copper Family singing this at Cecil Sharp House last month. Bellowhead start off, perfectly, with a close harmony riff on the Coppers church-style singing, before opening it up into swinging sunny arrangement, wholly in tune with the original, with Jon in his best Folksong-A-Day mode, revelling in every sweet traddy line. You had to wonder about the hippy poppy repetition of “thousands or more” at the end, but it immediately settles back into a straight fiddle melody, so we left feeling that he had started off drinking cider on the village green, gone on an excursion to some weird place, and then found our way back home. Clever without being smartass. Already almost my favourite Bellowhead track of all time at the moment, probably. 

Oh yes. After the show John and Jon decamped to the nearest pub the theatre after the show, rapidly joined by Sam and Paul, and carried on singing and playing. So we got to join in with Thousands or More, and New York Girls, all over again. And Paul Sartin completely failed to keep a straight face during an unaccompanied rendition of one of Anons forays into the  art of the Single Entendre. (It involved a farmer taking a male hen to market and everyone remarking on how large it was.) You can't get much more folkie than that.

So I mean, basically: Bellowhead.  


They’re loud. They’re mad. They’re completely over the top. They sing songs about black beetle pies. 

If Chumbawamba has just split up and you aren’t feeling miserable enough for Show of Hands, they really are the best act in the country.  And Spiers and Boden are coming back to Colston Hall, just the two of them, next year, and inviting local people to suggest local songs for them to learn. Which I have to say will be something of a relief.

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