They’re the dazzling derring-do First Eleven (count them) of British folk. And following 2010’s hook-up with legendary producer John Leckie at Abbey Road for Hedonism, big band Bellowhead have recently got back together with the producer, this time in Rockfield studios in Wales. Here at the world’s first residential recording studio, and birthplace of countless classic albums since opening its doors in the mid Sixties, the band of remarkable fellows locked horns, strings and more besides to make their fourth studio album, Broadside, their hardest-hitting to date.
Bellowhead was originally conceived back in 2004 for the fun of a festival field, not the recording studio. It was a bit of a wheeze. The band quickly grew to include like-minded friends of friends of friends, each hailing from (almost) every corner of the UK. Within no time at all the 11 musicians were creating a uniquely raucous, richly coloured mix of folk, funk, music hall, jazz, classical and improvisational dissonance, spiked with a penchant for creating wild and inventive new arrangements for traditional English dance tunes and ballads. Only weeks after forming, their first gig was a sell-out in Oxford. Soon after, a gig at Sidmouth Festival resulted in a broken dance-floor (it also happened twice at Towersey Festival) such was the enthusiasm of the audience.
From those early years, Bellowhead have gone on to perform in front of 1000s and to capture the hearts and ears of even the most dissenting audiences; folk music for people who love it and people who think they don’t. And from a bit of a wheeze, Bellowhead have become one of the most highly regarded and sought after bands on the live circuit today. They have been Artists in Residence at London’s South Bank Centre for 5 years, have hosted a Christmas special for BBCTV and featured on ‘Later with Jools’, have chatted on air to Chris Evans, launched their own Hedonism ale, and, at the request of the producers, recorded new versions of the theme tunes for The Archers and The Simpsons.
In the UK, the band have appeared everywhere from Koko in Camden Town to Glastonbury, from the Royal Albert Hall to Latitude, as well as enthralling crowds across Europe and North America.
Bellowhead have won critical as well as popular acclaim too including a remarkable number of BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – seven, to date, mostly for the Best Live Act, but twice for Best Group. They’ve done this in the course of headlining festival appearances and regular sell-out tours, but also across one EP (E.P. Onymous), one compilation (Umbrellowhead), three studio albums, Burlesque (2006), Matachin (2008), Hedonism (2010). Additionally, there have been two spectacular live DVDs, Burlesque (2009) filmed at the Shepherds Bush Empire and 2011’s Hedonism Live. And now, their latest CD, Broadside.
This is a band full of angles; always coming at live and recorded performance in unexpected ways. And, almost all of these accomplished musicians are also involved in other projects (as featured in 2009’s Umbrellowhead) that run comfortably in parallel with their Bellowhead activities. They range from ‘Shifting Sands’ with the British Council, uniting trumpeter Andy Mellon, drummer Pete Flood, and saxophonist Brendan Kelly with musicians from Britain, the UEA and the Arabian Gulf, to solo albums, acclaimed duos (Spiers and Boden, Paul Sartin’s Belshazzar’s Feast with Paul Hutchinson), avant-garde splinter groups (Boden’s The Remnant Kings, also featuring multi-instrumentalist, Sam Sweeney) and contemporary jazz (Pete Flood and Brendan Kelly’s Farmyard Animals). Jon Boden has also written theatrical scores for the RSC, and was behind the ambitious and successful A Folk Song A Day online project to promote the art of social, communal singing. Bellowhead’s chief vocalist inhabits the spirit of an alter ego on stage and along the way has won the Best Singer at the BBC Folk Awards.
With all the wealth of musical knowledge, interest and experience that the good folks of Bellowhead pour into the mix, there’s little likelihood that you’ve ever heard those songs in the way they’ve been played here. The sheer joie-de vivre of this band is unmatched and once they’re ready to roll, they never let up.
The string section of Boden, Sweeney, Paul Sartin and cellist Rachael McShane (whose No Man’s Fool album was released in 2010) streams like whitewater through the songs with the heavy ballast of struggle, fate and happenstance that they carry. The brass of trombonist Justin Thurgur, helicon player Ed Neuhauser, Brendan Kelly on sax and trumpeter Andy Mellon, punches high, low and in between, pumping up excitement and a stomping sense of swing around a set of dramatic, story-driven tunes – some more familiar than others – and raising them into areas of musical exploration, energy and theatricality that no other band in Britain can match, regardless of genre.
“Folk singing is about storytelling and stretching out vocally and talking to the audience, rather than going inward and soul searching,” says Jon Boden of his technique. That sense of seizing the drama of a song’s tune and lyric has him pulling on the stage ropes of gripping theatricality. Benji Kirkpatrick’s guitars, bouzouki, banjo and mandolin, and John Spiers’ multiple squeezeboxes, are the connecting tissue between the strings, brass and the voices. The ragged company of a shout-out chorus is never far off – while down below – or, rather, high up on his drummer’s podium, a percussionist maestro – Pete Flood rattles everything from frying pans to rusty metal and bells. Here’s a player who can forge and recast pretty well any time signature you’d care to name, and about whom broadcaster and conductor Charles Hazlewood remarked: “He’s a bit like Keith Moon – he’s all across everything, all of the time.”
That percussive precision and energy means a lot on stage and goes some way to explaining how Bellowhead gets the joint jumping – even if it’s a song about cholera (Cholera Camp), prostitution (New York Girls), or meeting the devil with his horny riddles (The Outlandish Knight). This band can raise up the hard partying spirit at the heart of the English song and dance music tradition to extraordinary levels and it’s perhaps this quality which remains the band’s chief calling card.
“To be a party band,” says Paul Sartin, “the music has to be accessible, and therefore contemporary. We haven’t deliberately set out to update folk or to cross boundaries but if this is what we’ve done, it’s probably because we bring so many different musical influences into the band.”
But how does an 11-piece unit stuffed with superlative performers contain and direct that excitement and energy as one body? Says Pete Flood, “I don’t think you’d ever get a Bellowhead performance from a bunch of session musicians. It’s that thing of intensely playing stuff and really talking about it and then hanging out for a bit and then going back to it time and again and developing the music and our friendships with each other over months – or years.”
As a collective, different members bring in ideas and arrangements for songs, which are then, like a good spirit, put through a complex filtering and distilling process. “When a new piece comes to the table,” says Brendan Kelly, “it does change from being something that was first presented by an individual into something which becomes essentially Bellowhead. It’ll slowly be warped and shaped into something that belongs to all of us.”
Jon Boden : Vocals / Fiddle / Tambourine
John Spiers : Melodeon / Concertina
Benji Kirkpatrick : Guitar / Bouzouki / Mandolin / Banjo
Rachael McShane : Cello / Fiddle
Paul Sartin : Fiddle / Oboe
Sam Sweeney : Fiddle / Bagpipes
Pete Flood : Percussion
Ed Neuhauser : Sousaphone
Justin Thurgur : Trombone
Brendan Kelly : Saxophones / Bass Clarinet
Andy Mellon : Trumpet