Lay out the mourning suit and the widow’s weeds, eleven years after they first surged onto the scene at their Oxford Town Hall gig the exhilarating juggernaut of bombastic, swaggering, buffed, multi-coloured big band folk that is Bellowhead is, soon to be, no more. Fear not though, there is a few last hurrah’s before they go their merry way.
Led by the omnipresent Jon Boden, there has never been a force of nature (‘band’ seems such a feeble word to describe such a gathering) quite like Bellowhead and it is unlikely there ever will be again. With the aforementioned Boden on vocals and fiddles, John Spiers on melodeon and concertina, Andy Mellon on trumpet, Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar, bouzouki, banjo and mandolin, Brendan Kelly on sax, Justin Thurgur on trombone, Pete Flood on percussion and drums, Paul Sartin on oboe, Sam Sweeney on fiddle and bagpipes, Rachael McShane on cello and fiddle and, last but certainly never least, Ed Neuhauser on helicon and tuba, Bellowhead have stormed many a venue and broke a good few folk records over the last decade and a bit.
In essence a Greatest Hits package, Pandemonium presents highlights from Bellowhead’s incredible career, from Broadside we have the neatly funky ’10,000 Miles Away’, the melodic ‘Betsy Baker’, and the celebratory ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’; from Revival we have the pounding ‘Roll Alabama’, the rather naughty ‘Gosport Nancy’ and the verging on punky ‘Let Her Run’; from Matachin there is the sweet ‘Fakenham Fair’ and the anarchic ‘Whiskey Is The Life Of Man’, whilst from E.P. Onymous there is the playfully black ‘Prickle-Eye Bush’; from Burlesque there is rhythmic ‘London Town’, whilst their highest charting album Hedonism is well represented by the jaunty ‘Yarmouth Town’, the haunting ‘Cold Blows the Wind’ and the rollicking crowd pleaser ‘New York Girls’. Some notable tracks are perhaps missing (no ‘Old Dun Cow’, ‘Black Beetle Pies’ or their cover of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ for example) but the selection is still a majestically fine record of Bellowhead highlights.
Pandemonium also marks out just how Bellowhead have grown and developed over the years. Listen to ‘Prickle-Eye Bush’ for example: a stripped down, saturnine and darkly morose lament – fully fitting its folk song history. Then compare it to ‘Let Her Run’ from 2014, a version of the sea shanty ‘Let The Bulgine Run’, now flavoured with some feisty punk drums, raw jagged trumpet competing with some almost gospel singalong vocals. Or contrast the strutting pub singalong ‘Whiskey Is The Life of Man’ from 2008 with the almost anthemic ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ from 2012, full of sweeping fiddles, rich oboe and a rousing jaunty chorus. Bellowhead knew how flexible these songs were and weren’t afraid to stretch that elasticity to almost breaking point. Confident in the power and resilience of their material they were experimental to the point of alchemists – wrenching from each tune an innovative and thrilling vibrancy.
It is a measure of their talent that Bellowhead’s albums, rarely recorded live, still exude the spirit and spontaneity of a live recording. Listen to feisty opener ‘New York Girls’ and try to fight that urge to boogie – go on, I dare you, it’s impossible. All of Bellowhead’s tracks are standouts, but there will be a few favourites in here – for me it doesn’t get much better than the aforementioned ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ or ‘New York Girls’ but ‘Cold Blows the Wind’ is an old favourite – a shadowy song delivered with some gorgeous moody sweeps, rich in spooky weaving strings and topped off by Boden’s knowing, enticing, slightly sinister, melancholic vocals.
It is impossible not to like Bellowhead, their energy and enthusiasm for all genres of music, not just traditional, has been infectious, spirited and joyous. Their influences and sounds come from a multitude of sources and styles, often melding two or three in a cacophony of bravado. Listen to the mix of inspiration; pop, jazz, funk, punk, swing, 80’s-rock all flavoured with some riotous punk mixed with sweeping orchestral strings or dabbed heavily in the soft tones of choral music. Throughout is laced a resolve; a passionate carnival of music and song.
The sheer joy and excitement of musical collaboration is bursting at the seams. The majority of tunes are elaborately arranged by Boden and/or Flood but it’s not just in their musicality that Bellowhead are significant. Their reinterpretation (or should that be reinvigoration?) of the English folk scene has influenced many a recent act and their legacy of experimentation, stylistic dalliance and energetic festivity will echo for many a year. Listen to ‘Roll Alabama’ or ‘Fakenham Fair’; songs which haven’t exactly been forgotten but in Bellowhead’s hands they have a new urgency, even relevancy which is a unique feat to accomplish. Playfully anarchic, but never disrespectful; humorous, but never sarcastic – in many ways Bellowhead were the champions of traditional English folk song rather than its knockers. There is a great love of the tradition in these songs, with versions abounding in renewed life and technicolour. It would be impossible to tinker with these songs so whole heartedly without an affection and admiration of tradition. It is hopeless not to be swept up in Bellowhead’s sheer exuberance of the tradition.
Pandemonium is a true celebration. Plenty of other bands have dabbled in a similar vein, but few have been quite as successful as Bellowhead; few have captured that sense of energy, joy and sheer mischievousness in the music than they have. As a live band they are second to none and their upcoming Farewell Tour (or Tours as it is split into two – one in November 2015 and one in April/May 2016) will be a remarkable and emotional experience. The last gig is due to take place on May 1, 2016 at the very same town hall where it all started on 2004. There will be tears, some of sadness, but mostly of delight – Bellowhead are just too damn upbeat to let the party get too melancholic.
Review by: Billy Rough
Pandemonium – The Essential Bellowhead is released 16th October via Navigator Records
Order via ProperMusic and use the code ‘BELLOWHEAD’ at checkout to get £2 off:
For details of their final tour dates visit: www.bellowhead.co.uk