In part three of their tour diary Blowzabella arrive in Austria where they play a couple of performances (incuding an old coffin factory). They also manage to get a well-earned day off, they reflect on some of the tour highlights so far which for Jo Freya included the great distance many people have travelled to see them including those that last saw them behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.
Paul finds a pub that hasn’t been touched since 19th century and comes across an unusual street theatre performance. He also interviews a hurdgy gurdy maker from Vienna who reveals that 99% of what he makes is exported to Spain, Sweden and other places all around the world. Gregory Jolivet opens the latest audio tour diary:
Blowzabella History (continued)
Bill (co-founder Bill O’Toole) had been playing zurnas (loud double-reed woodwind instrument) on stilts in Australia and had the idea of literally elevating the band. The first public performances in 1978/79 were at festivals and fairs with Blowzabella drawing attention as an energetic stilt walking dance band in bizarre costumes. The line-up was Bill O’Toole, Jon Swayne, Chris Gunstone, Sam Palmer and Dave Armitage. Bagpipes were very much to the fore playing the tune, with the hurdy-gurdy close behind and a driving rhythm being supplied by the bouzouki and percussion – usually a Balkan double-headed tapan or a side drum. The repertoire was a mixture of English, Balkan, French and Flemish traditional dance tunes. Bill made the first sets of bagpipes the band used, Sam made hurdy-gurdies, Jon made flutes and recorders and later went onto pipe making and Dave Armitage made curtals and bombards. This was partly because they could and partly because there were so few others making the instruments they wanted to play at that time. Since then the band have continued to work with a number of instrument makers and the band’s sound is partly the result of their work.
In the early days the band played at alternative festivals including the Festival of Fools, the Albion Fairs, Barsham, Rougham Tree and Hood Fairs, in the street, at parties and college gigs. Those festivals were unusual in the way they brought together such a wide variety of alternative entertainment – street theatre, all kinds of bands, stand-up comedy, improvised music, new circus, free poets, performance artists, pagans, bikers, locals and people of all ages. From 1978 onwards members of the band would go to a festival in central France in a small village called Saint Chartier. In its early days the festival was predominantly about the traditional music, dances and instruments of central France, particularly the bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy and accordion. The alternative festivals with their creative atmosphere and eclectic mix of contemporary, independent artists and Saint Chartier with its great musicians and all night playing and dancing were major formative influences on Blowzabella.
The Blowzabella “wall of sound”
In December 1980, Paul James (bagpipes, saxophone, woodwinds) and Cliff Stapleton (hurdy-gurdy) joined the band. Paul, Cliff and Juan Wijngaard had played together since about 1975. Cliff’s theatre company The Mountebank Zanies did many performances in the mid to late 1970s with Juan, Paul and others, and later, the first Blowzabella line-up providing the music. Paul soon became the band’s organiser and was responsible for orgnising and producing all their albums and tours from then on. Dave Armitage, who had left in 1980, rejoined in late 1982 playing bass curtal and percussion. Dave Shepherd (violin) – who knew Dave Roberts and Dave Armitage and had played in the folk rock band Dr Cosgill with Paul since 1977 – was invited to join in 1983. This was a period when the band started composing their own tunes and when they played at all the major European Festivals including the main pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival. It was also the hey day of The Three Daves (Armitage, Roberts and Shepherd) – all great players, dancers and enthusiasts for traditional English dance music. In the early 1980s John Offord (violin) and Guy Crayford (guitar, mandola) occasionally sat in when one of the regular members was unavailable. Also during this time the band struck up a long-standing friendship with the singer Frankie Armstrong which culminated in the album Tam Lin in 1984 and some live performances in Britain, Europe and Canada. Recordings from this period : Blowzabella (1982), In Colour (1983), Tam Lin (1984) and Bobbityshooty (1984). Book : Encyclopaedia Blowzabellica. Blowzabella tune and dance book.
By 1985 the band needed a freh injection of ideas and energy and Paul approached Jo Freya (vocals, saxophone, clarinet) who was perhaps best known then as a member of the Old Swan Band, a very young Nigel Eaton (hurdy-gurdy) and Ian Luff (cittern, bass guitar). When Dave Roberts decided to step down that made room for another astonishing young player – Andy Cutting (diatonic button accordion). The band made a leap forwards building on everything that had gone before, greatly increasing the amount of music composed by the band, and honing the sound and reputation of Blowzabella as a powerful live band. During this period they travelled widely across Britain and Europe, touring East Germany before the fall of the iron curtain, around Brazil and a tour that took in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. Recordings from this period : The B to A of Blowzabella (1986), Pingha Frenzy (1988), A Richer Dust (1988), Vanilla (1990).
The usual pressures associated with constant touring led to the decision to stop playing in December 1990. The band members stayed in touch and would sometimes play together in twos and threes, while moving on to do their own musical projects. In 1996 Dave Roberts tragically died. Dave was a great musician with an encyclopaedia of tunes and dances in his head. He had a special gift for being able to instantly play virtually any kind of tune, even if he’d never heard it before that moment, in any key, with any kind of musician, even those he’d only met 5 minutes previously. A natural musician with a great technique, he was also a modest person who never sought the limelight and was often happiest providing a solid and reliable platform for others in the band to build on.
Ian, Jon, Andy, Nigel and Dave played a few gigs as Blowzabella from 1996 to 2001 and wrote some new tunes. Paul organised a 25th anniversary celebration in 2003 and Andy Cutting, Nigel Eaton, Jo Freya, Paul James, Ian Luff, Dave Shepherd, Jon Swayne played some memorable gigs including a huge, hot and atmospheric performance at St. Chartier Festival in central France in July 2003. The band had a lot of new material and enthusiasm and decided to carry on, although Nigel Eaton stepped down at the end of 2004 and another major young talent Gregory Jolivet from Bourges (hurdy-gurdy) was invited to join. Ian Luff left at the end of 2005 and the band invited Barn Stradling (bass guitar) to join. Greg and Barn were obvious choices for the band, both havng grown up listening to the band’s music and both having the flair, originality and tune writing skills to make a major contribtion to developing the band for the future.
A Taster of Blowzabella
Band website www.blowzabella.com