While things don’t get off to the most auspicious starts with a train missed by a squeak and a half hour wait, but it does nothing to darken my mood. I’ve set out on a trip to Lewes for what promises to be the start of a busy and slightly crazy couple of days in the company of Bellowhead. The point of our assignation in Lewes is the Sussex brewer, Harveys, a family run concern that can trace an unbroken line of beer making back to 1790. The reason that several of the band had preceded me there, some staying over night, is the brewing of Revival Ale. Having a taste for ales, of which Harveys Best is a particularly fine example, this is something of a spiritual pilgrimage, but as it’s combined with a chance for a 48 hour chance to mix with one of the best band’s on the planet, the potential pleasure is more than doubled.
Tie ups between brewers and bands has become a fairly popular meeting of minds, marketing, palettes and personalities. Bellowhead were there at the vanguard when they teamed up with Kettering’s Pot belly Brewery to brew Hedonism Ale, but that was two albums ago and while a lot of others have followed in their wake, the hook up with Harveys has the band very excited. Although it’s perhaps not widely known outside of its native county, but is still a regular prize winner and brews some exceptional beers. It has an innovative way of selling beer from trolleys at Brighton’s home football matches, where fans consume an average of 9,000 pint per game. They have also won two awards for their Imperial Stout and Tom Paine premium bitter at this year’s World Beer Event. More recently The Star Of Eastbourne has also won a local prize, to universal applause amongst the judges and drinkers.
On the scale that Harveys Brew, there might not be much room for amateur brewers, but there was still hands on time for Bellowhead. We are all treated to a thorough explanation of the process, extensive tour and crucially some very tasty samples. Given that you can’t even get on the regular brewery tours at the moment as the waiting list is so long, this is rare privilege. Head Brewer Miles, Sales and Marketing Manger Bob and even the Harveys MD Fraser are on hand as convivial and informative hosts, offering a wealth of beer related trivia and some great insight into the local community and history.
As we head for lunch in the local brewery tap, there’s a big table that proves a perfect forum for lively chat that is both funny and informative. With Bellowhead as guests the talk naturally turns to music and Pete has spotted a song on Miles’ wall. Miles delights in reciting some of the lyrics, which in turns out are a series of puns about local brewers and the song, written 100 odd years ago, was politically pointed at a time when brewers were lobbying parliament to improve their lot. We learn of the Lewes Martyrs, protestants who are rolled into the anti-Papist Bonfire Night tradition that has become a major and somewhat map-cap event of derring-do, with scant regard for health and safety, or local parking meters, which have been known to mysteriously explode. Then there are the competing bonfire societies, harvest festivals and local morris side. Eventually the tone is lowered with a few music hall references and the inevitable double-entendres that seem all the funnier for a lunchtime pint.
Post lunch Bellowhead, or at least Squeezy and Sam, with Brendan gamely strumming the MD’s banjo – the first time he’s ever played the instrument – running through a few quick tunes as the staff are in turn entertained. It’s a fitting finale for me and time to head home and do some work before the second instalment of Bellowheading.
Part two takes me to Manchester, where the band are scheduled to be live on the Mark Radcliffe hosted BBC Radio Two Folk Show. The station is these days based out at the end of Salford Quay, in the aptly named Media City district, where ITV rub shoulders with their illustrious auntie.
Arriving in Manchester Piccadilly, I elect to take the tram, as it seems to be a simple enough thing to do and a chance for a bit of cheapskate sight seeing. It proves to be a weird and slightly unnerving experience, as once we have left the old centre the tram trundles through an area of massive redevelopment. There are lots of brand new buildings, but apart for my fellow travellers, a scant handful of people at the various stops and a call centre viewed through an office block window, there are no people. Of course when we reach the end of the line and the final destination, suddenly the place comes back to life.
Hotel check-in achieved and band located, I find myself in the local Dockyard pub next door to the radio studio, sharing a few moments with Andy Melon and the band’s manager Mark Whyles between rehearsal and broadcast, but we’ll return to this large and well stocked watering hole, with some excellent ales, in a moment, as it’s a significant part of the reason I’m here. First there is the broadcast.
In an echo of the previous day, it’s surprising just how easy going everything is. Obviously there’s work to be done, a show to be broadcast and the small matter of an 11 piece band to mix, while they play live to an audience that’s not too far short of a million listeners. But even my presence as an obvious interloper is accommodated without question. Mark Radcliffe has that almost perfect blend of a confident air, a thorough understanding of what he is doing and an easy going nature. More fundamentally, however, there is the sense of a man with an amazing appetite for music, an expansive knowledge and a genuine regard for the guests. Kathryn Tickell one week and Bellowhead another are treated with equanimity and met with heartfelt enthusiasm and an understanding of balancing the privilege of having guests play live in front of you and the genuine desire to promote these artists as vociferously as possible.
If you heard it, the band played the show in, singing the opening signature song live, something which it Mark seems genuinely moved by. He quickly tells the band not to worry about making noise and that they have the freedom to come and go, as least as far as the lounge area, between live songs. The band also perform Let Her Run, with Jon Boden explaining the song’s shanty provenance, a surprisingly funky I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, which leads to the inevitable Island records connection and finally Rosemary Lane.
The conversation around the last song is the main segment and covers the forthcoming tour, the beer and the possible conjunction between the two. Fans are being asked to nominate local pubs that might be prepared to host post show sessions, with the chance of also being able to serve Revival Ale. Mark points out that we could knock a hole in the wall behind him through to The Dockyard, and indeed a session is planned immediately post broadcast. Admittedly the Harveys beer obviously isn’t ready and the principal of post gig straight to pub already has some mileage from previous live shows, but gets another road test tonight.
After the broadcast, Jon, John, Paul and Sam, with Benji joining after a short break set up at a table in The Dockyard and play and sing. Although the setting isn’t ideal given the high ceilings and vast open space, they soon have a crowd gathered. The pub’s staff are brilliant and once again magnanimous hosts. They may have pushed out on a limb by turning the enormous TV screen and music off, but they treat the whole thing with as a real appreciation, not to mention astonishing generosity. The young manager Steven in particular, proves to be full of surprises, but also very willing to lubricate proceedings accordingly. Those band members who are staying over are very well fed and watered indeed, while the pub seems full of great characters and friendly faces. There’s even a local lass who brings her flute to the table for a couple of tunes. A great night.
So if you know of any suitable pubs, preferably within easy striking distance of the venues that the band are playing this November, then do get in touch via twitter using the hash tag #RevivalAle. You could be the catalyst for a similar session in your home town. If it can be arranged there is the very real prospect of some fine Harveys Revival Ale to get the party going, now that promises to be a night to remember, so #RevivalAle without delay.
What a couple of days it’s been, I can’t wait for parts three and onwards.
Feature by: Simon Holland
For full details of their tour visit: http://www.bellowhead.co.uk/live.html