This has been a rum old year for the music world. A good number of genuinely legendary artistes have shuffled off this mortal coil in the last 4 months. 2016 also sees the demise of one of the best live bands on the circuit. Less of a shock, as we have known for a while that Bellowhead were calling it a day for some time now, but no less of a sense of loss for those who love their music.
Before they go, however, there’s one last go round. Bellowhead Live is the sumptuously packaged reminder of what a band they are. A double CD of tracks from various gigs on the first part of their long goodbye, and a DVD of their gig at Leicester De Montford Hall in November 2015, in hardback book form, featuring great live photos of the band.
All too often, live albums are an afterthought: Either a contractual obligation, or souvenir for hardcore fans, often shoddily recorded, or sometimes note-for-note recitations of the album versions. This is not the case with Bellowhead Live. Some of the more recent studio albums have only really clicked with me fully, after I have seen the songs performed live. Then I could go back to the albums and appreciate them fully. This album cuts out the middleman and delivers, direct to the soul.
There are a number of unsung heroes on Bellowhead Live. First of these is Andy Bell, who not only did the live sound for the gigs, but also produced the Live album. What a pair of ears that man has. He manages to capture subtleties and textures that I had not heard in Bellowhead before. A big band, with complex arrangements, and a huge variety of instruments, and each one is clearly audible. The recording has a clarity and warmth that is rarely heard in studio albums, let alone a live recording. It’s like the band is playing right in front of you. I haven’t heard such an alive live album since The Band’s Rock of Ages. Stunning.
This superb mix lets the other unsung heroes of the band shine through. Pete Flood hits everything in sight with precision and deftness, Benji Kirkpatrick’s guitar, mandolin and disco banjo, drives the band in everything they do. And then there’s John Spiers. As a melodeon player myself, it has been an utter joy to hear the melodeon really clearly in the mix. I have gained a whole new appreciation of John’s skill as a result of this, and this is the heart of the Bellowhead sound. Often buried in the mix, on Live, it shows a man with technique and passion.
Jon Boden is a superb lead for the band. It is no wonder that, in spite of having other excellent potential lead people, when Jon decided to call it a day, the band decided they didn’t want to go on without him. Even with cheeky scamp Sam Sweeney and class clown Paul Sartin, and the superb musicianship of all the other players, Jon Boden is too big a gap to fill. Check out the DVD for a masterclass in keeping an audience in the palm of your hand.
And then there’s the sheer range of music on offer. Bellowhead are a band who are as influenced by Brecht and Weill as much as Vaughn-Williams and Sharp. They do angular, tender, dark, powerful, nuanced, driving, funky or celebratory; sometimes in the same song. And such utter joy. I have never seen a group of musicians who make being in a band look so much damned fun! The DVD part of the gig ends as one big party.
I am off to see the band for one last time. I will say my goodbyes whilst jumping up and down. No doubt there will be mixed emotions. But I will have the music on this album to come back to time after time. And by gosh, it will make me grin from ear to ear. So long, and thanks for all the memories.
Bellowhead Live: The Farewell Tour (2CD+DVD) is Out Now via Navigator Records
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Also available via: Amazon
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