This couldn’t be much further away from my last gig – Alasdair Roberts and an acoustic guitar – but it proves the genre’s flexibility. And this is one of the things I love about folk. At times it’s dense, thoughtful and quiet, but it can just as easily be noisy, extrovert and fun. And there’s plenty in between, of course.
Taking the stage to a squalling intro tape, Blackbeard’s Tea Party waste no time getting up to speed. Opener Steam Arm Man – about a cursed, violent prosthetic limb – is forceful, gory and thrillingly preposterous. Choppy electric guitar, powerful drumming and singer Stuart Giddens’ booming voice (the volume of which makes a few audience members jump back from the speaker) convey the band’s enthusiasm and energy.
And it simply doesn’t let up: they barely pause for breath between songs and tunes. Laura Boston-Barber’s violin duels with Giddens’ melodeon on a frantic Devil in the Kitchen, which rocks so hard that bassist Martin Coumbe and guitarist Tim Yates soon have their feet on the monitors.
Jack Ketch is a morbid rocker, Giddens cheerfully reminding us by way of an introduction that “certain people in the news” won’t be able to escape the reaper. The Ballad of William Kidd is a groovy piratical story it’s impossible not to sing along with, while Stand Up Now delivers a rousing message with a smile.
The customary interval feels a little incongruous, but BTP soon have the momentum going again. Newie Dense Little Funk Nuggets sounds like its title, while The Slave Chase marries mighty riffing with a powerful pro-freedom sentiment.
The band work hard to make things entertaining – there are synchronised dance moves, Benny Hill-style chases around the stage (and into the audience), and even acrobatic jumps. Giddens has some particularly impressive moves – gigging must have been good preparation for the marathon he recently completed. But while this is undoubtedly fun, it’s all held together by the group’s musical talent and understanding.
There’s little in the way of ‘slower’ songs – Dave Boston’s conga gives the sinuous Loose Shoulder a foreboding intro, before the tempo is turned up and Liam Hardy’s more disco-y beat becomes more prominent. The band really cuts loose for the brilliant instrumental Moonshiner, before finishing off with another you can’t help but sing along with: a demented take on Cyril Tawney’s Chicken on a Raft.
I haven’t had this much fun at a show since my last Bellowhead gig. And, as with that band, I reckon they’re a great jumping in point for non-folkies – I’ll be bringing friends with me next time.
I have to commend Alasdair Roberts’ commitment to finding and playing at new venues. I’ve seen him several times in Brighton – solo and as part of The Furrow Collective – but never in the same venue twice.
The last time was on a sweaty spring evening at The Hope & Ruin, when Roberts’ intensity was amplified by a tightly packed crowd and an airless room. Tonight at the Albert it couldn’t feel much colder outside, and this room is rather better ventilated. But there’s something about Roberts’ focus that seems to heat the air – so great is it that he barely touches his beer despite an obvious expenditure of energy and seeming rise in temperature (which he wryly attributes to “stasis”).
He opens with the plaintive Coral & Tar, before taking us on a tour of what is now an impressive back catalogue of his own songs, with plenty of traditional numbers thrown in. Fair Flower of Northumberland is a satisfying example of the latter – a song about two Scots and two English people which, he diplomatically notes, doesn’t necessarily paint the Scottish cast in a favourable light.
Roberts’ accented vocals, slightly hunched stance and string-threatening, bony guitar plucks give his performance a certain austerity. But while you sometimes want to get him to play songs back so you can fully digest the words, there’s a mordant sense of fun, too. My Geordie O My Geordie O has a melody reminiscent of the Furrows’ super-catchy Hind Horn, No Dawn Song is lovely and light, while False Lover John – an Irish ballad – is funny and delivered with a glint in the eye.
Roberts treats the crowd to some previews of songs from his upcoming album, Pangs, and makes his set even more absorbing with a few instrumental flourishes – he delivers a surprisingly kick-ass guitar solo on the biting Farewell Sorrow, and uses his voice as an instrument to powerful effect on Fusion of Horizons, suddenly creating quite the wall of sound. Set concluder Riddle Me This feels like an appropriate ending to a night of intelligent, enigmatic music.
The complexity of the songs and the density of his language makes Roberts’ set quite a different from the preceding one from Mary Hampton. The Brighton singer returned to the stage after some time away to deliver a set of mostly traditional songs. She began with a witty a capella number that demonstrated her beautiful singing technique and ability to becalm a chatty room, before picking up her guitar for several songs originally from France, including the winning Orange Tree. These, she said, appealed to her because they were understated – and within the thoughtful arrangements there was certainly a sparseness and room for interpretation that made me want to hear them again soon.
Hampton had a new guitar with a beautiful bass sound to show off, but I enjoyed a tune played on her older instrument – a piece inspired by the tarantella folk dances of Italy. The clanging, often buzzy drone made a fine backdrop for the more frantic, high-up-the-neck stuff you’d expect to accompany the shaking off of poisonous spiders.
She ended with a song played at her first-ever gig – a setting of WB Yeats’ Long-Legged Fly. As with everything else in the set, I’d never heard it before but was utterly captivated. What a pleasure to have her back.
The Knights Project are led by Lucy Day, who sets up shop side-on, staring out her fellow guitarist (of whose name I’m not sure) in the name of – she assured us – the pair being able to concentrate on what they were playing. The group played some interesting original material over some busy guitar playing. A third member provided some lovely, subtle harmonies, and I loved their take on The False Bride, too.
I loved the quiet, beautiful harmony singing with which Ian and Daragh Lynch began the set’s opener, Henry My Son. And I loved the delicate, pretty fiddle work of Cormac Mac Diarmada that started to build the sound of that song. I loved the strange, attacking sound of Ian’s pipes, and Radie Peat’s tatty, blaring melodeon, but also the lightness and deftness all of the band played with. That they understand the value of light and shade was illustrated perfectly by The Old Man From Over the Sea: a grotesque tale told for the most part in an amusingly studied fashion, it became a raucous knees-up in just a few instants.
Lynched (from left: Ian, Cormac, Radie, Daragh). Photo: Brian Flanagan
I liked the way Ian sat with his shoes and socks off and his jeans rolled up like he was about to go for a paddle. (I’m not sure where one can paddle in Aldershot, but as far as I could tell there was no practical reason for it.) I liked the way Radie (another from the Sandie Shaw school of footwear) unstarrily clambered down on to the floor to crouch over the harmonium (it may have been a shruti box) for a couple of songs. When you can sing like that, you’ve no need to stand and ‘project’ – her voice made the chairs in the back row rock even when their occupants couldn’t see her.
And it wasn’t just Radie’s voice that I loved. Everyone could sing. And though I hate to be the guy who says “I love your accent”… those lovely Dublin brogues felt made to be wrapped around songs both reserved and robust, including one I didn’t know that had “at least a million” words. How everyone stayed on the same script for that one is beyond me.
I loved that Lynched are fans of the long, quiet and drone-y songs that a lot of bands wouldn’t be brave enough to play live. Everyone loved shouting out “fresh fish!” during Sweet Daffodil Mulligan, but the band’s willingness to whisper through a lengthy, engrossing Turkish Revelry as well really made my heart sing.
I liked the group’s easy manner. They seemed to be having fun, chatting gamely about the negative Twitter response they got for their appearance on Jools Holland’s show (“The Corrs have let themselves go”), pondering the role of Manchester as a ‘natural enemy’ city and relating the stories behind their songs. Speaking of which, these were great. I liked the wisdom of Cold Old Fire, the somehow cheerful desperation of Salonika and the bizarreness of Father Had a Knife.
I liked support act Thom Ashworth’s take on Tyne of Harrow, too. He did some tuneful and percussive looping with his electric double bass (and some Flea-esque funky shenanigans with his acoustic) and sang lustily over the top. He was a bit nervous – but apparently it was his first solo gig, so you can’t blame him for that. Tom forgot to introduce himself on stage, and afterwards lots of people were asking him, so I think it’s safe to say you were a hit, Tom.
Can you imagine a trickier subject to address than 800 years of democratic freedom? Let alone in the context of the tumultuous 2016 we’re having?
Well, the project is built on solid foundations, namely its cast. Sweet Liberties – an album conceived as part of an educational drive called ‘Parliament in the Making’ – features an exciting line-up. Sam Carter, Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr (an Elizabethan Sessions player) and Martyn Joseph are all prolific, on-form songwriters, while Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid (a veteran of the Cecil Sharp Project) are seasoned and talented accompanists.
And as you’d expect they’ve come up with plenty of material – 14 tracks that mark historic people, laws and moments in our history, but which also go deeper into what parliament and democracy means in real terms, today and in the future. As Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow points out in the album’s sleeve notes: “Folk music has long been a tool of political protest, as well as a channel through which individuals and groups have commented on and influenced social change.”
No pressure then, gang. But the artists’ responses meet the brief. This is serious stuff, with songs about slavery, multiculturalism, women’s suffrage, miscarriages of justice and the decline of trade unionism. And fans of Carter, Kerr, Joseph and O’Connor won’t be surprised to learn that Bercow’s notes are pretty much the only Conservative thing here. This is a decidedly lefty record, though what it lacks in balance it makes up for in harmony.
Kerr’s Kingdom – a bansitar-laced version of which features on her new album Instar – is an appropriately majestic start. Conceived as a meditation on Magna Carta, the song goes on to remind us of an original law – that of the land – which human rules somewhat ironically violate. It’s a complex, nuanced song – which is a good guide for what’s to follow. Later, Kerr experiments with form in Seven Notes, examining colonialism and race relations via a metaphorical cuckoo, and demonstrates on the quirky Lila her eye for a great story.
Maz O’Connor too demonstrates some deft songwriting outside the box, with the likes of the gorgeous Rich Man’s Hill and This Old House, both of which address housing. The former is written (with clever ambiguity) from the perspective of a homeless man potentially empowered by the Poor Law of 1601, while the latter is a clever and tuneful illustration of the art of compromise – something equally key to politics and life.
Joseph is perhaps the most obvious firebrand here, but he’s a canny composer. His Nye – a tribute to (the pretty straightforwardly admirable) NHS founder Aneurin Bevan – is warm and witty, its chorus referencing Bevan’s ‘this is my truth tell me yours’ line that also inspired a Manic Street Preachers album. Joseph dodges straight-up hero-worship by paying tribute to those still helping people via the NHS today. His song Dic Penderyn, meanwhile, pays tribute to another Welshman – a labourer who was involved in the 1831 Merthyr Rising attempt to establish workers’ rights, and who paid a heavy price. If it sounds like hard work, the story is told masterfully, and the balance between Joseph’s earthy voice and Reid’s delightful descending fiddle line is lovely; it’s one of the catchiest things here.
Joseph is also the pen behind Twelve Years Old, a beautiful, duet with Sam Carter. Again, it brings a potentially dry subject – the Factory Act of 1833 – to life via an ingenious approach, imagining a conversation between two children taking place a hundred years apart. Both singers sound remarkably vulnerable as the song comes to what might be an unexpected conclusion.
Carter’s sleeve note for the angry Dark Days coyly reads that it ‘voices a sense of frustration with the political process in recent times’ – but on the road he’s been pretty vocal about linking it to the results of certain votes. This version kicks less ass than the stomping take on his How the City Sings album, but O’Connor’s backing vocal and a sharp fiddle line give it a certain elegant bite.
Carter twice broaches the topic of slavery. Often passed off as an American shame, Am I Not a Man relays the story of a slave named Olaudah Equiano and reminds us “England you need to know all I’ve suffered and seen”. One More River to Cross – inspired by the Slavery Abolition Act Equiano helped achieve – gives the album a cautiously rousing closing anthem.
Thoughtful, lyrical and bursting with ideas, Sweet Liberties has inspired some excellent songwriting, offering more with each listen. Let’s keep these song projects coming!
When you’ve been married for ten years, tradition dictates the anniversary gift should be made of tin. Being in a band isn’t quite like being married, admittedly – and the members of The Shee may well have celebrated their decade together with an exchange of tinned goods (we’re thinking some kind of beans on toast party) – but they’ve come up with a more original and exciting concept for an album to mark the milestone.
Continuum, conceived by the band in tandem with the Celtic Connections festival, sees each of the group’s six members commission a favourite songwriter or tunesmith to create a piece for them to interpret. It’s a measure of the high esteem they are held in that folk heavyweights like Andy Cutting, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood and Kathryn Tickell all said ‘yes’.
The result is an impressive, intelligent album that touches on a range of subjects, but which is united by the group’s innovative arrangements. As a snapshot of human thought and emotion it’s a treasure – Polwart’s Song for Mary seems to exemplify the project, looking back with its inclusion of Mary Brooksbank singing The Jute Mill Song, and forward with the ultimately hopeful telling of her story. It’s sensitively sung by Rachel Newton, with a lovely interplay of flute, accordion and guitar behind her voice.
Highlights are many. Laura-Beth Salter movingly delivers Martin Simpson’s extraordinary examination of his mother’s unhappiness, while Chris Wood delivers one of his wonderful Hugh Lupton collaborations – a meditative and moving lullaby that’s sung from what sounds like the bottom of Olivia Ross’ heart. Tunes variously evoke junior school (Cutting), Indian sunsets (Brian Finnegan) and, in Shona Mooney’s own composition, a ‘Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle’.
Mixed in with the commissions are four original pieces – the stormy, defiant From the Shadows and the reflective Precious Tears among them. These – along with some devastatingly well-played tune sets – make great reminders that although Continuum is built on the work of some gifted collaborators, it’s the inspiration and hard work of The Shee themselves that make it such a special album. Much better than tin, that’s for sure.
We spoke to The Shee’s Amy Thatcher – accordionist and clog dancer extraordinaire – about the album, the commissioning process and crisp sandwiches.
Folk Witness: Happy anniversary! Where did the idea to mark your first decade together with a special project come from – and how did you arrive at the idea of commissioning songs?
Amy Thatcher: Well, we’ve done three albums so far which have taken a pretty similar path so we wanted to do something different. It made sense to combine a ten-year ‘do’ in there somewhere, too. I think we were on tour in Germany talking about what we could do; I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to commission new music – the sign of a good idea, I suppose. We wanted it to be a snapshot of one of the ways in which traditional music is learnt and passed on nowadays. We’ve been inspired by musicians like the ones we’ve chosen and we also hope to inspire younger musicians in the same way. Not everyone is born into traditional music, but it is for everyone. It was also a bit of treat for us to play a brand new original piece of music from our favourite composers, like an anniversary present!
What made you choose Andy Cutting?
For me, Andy is one of those musicians I feel I’ve grown up with, ceilidhing to Blowzabella at Redcar and Chippenham, seeing him play with Karen Tweed at Folkbeat, The Two Duos Quartet coming to do workshops in Stockport, and spending my work experience with Karen Tweed when he and Karen lived in Derby, and… he writes just awesome music.
Were you surprised by what came back? Could you understand why the writers decided it was right for The Shee?
I think we were all thrilled by what came back – although that’s when all the hard work begins, so it also felt like we were miles from being ready at that point. It soon became apparent, as we were getting all the compositions back, that they had written something that meant a lot to them and they didn’t necessarily try and write something out of their comfort zone just because we were the ones going to be playing it for the first time. I felt like it was genuine writing.
Did you have much interaction with the composers as to how you arranged the pieces?
We got many different formats actually. Sometimes it was scored, sometimes it was played solo on an mp3 with notes on how they would like the arrangement to fill out. It took a lot of hard work by us to get it played through. We like to surprise ourselves, too, so it took a lot of trying out the tune on different instruments, swapping who plays chords. The most difficult thing – and most interesting thing – about our band is that every single instrument we have can play tune or accompaniment, so it could be completely different given another day. The things we made sure to set in stone were the lyrics, the core melodies and anything the composers specifically mentioned in their notes. You have to remember that they are trusting you with something precious. It must’ve felt strange to pass the responsibility on like that.
What was the Celtic Connections album launch [in Glasgow, in January] gig like?
One of those amazing gigs – they can’t all be like that, sometimes it just goes right! I can’t be that surprised to be honest; we had some of the most experienced, fantastic performers on stage with us that night, it was always going to be good!
How do the four pieces composed by you fit into the album? Did you need to knit the ‘guest songs’ together to produce something that felt like a whole, finished piece?
It’s funny, we always expected to have to knit those pieces into the rest of them, but it actually felt like a cohesive collection of music. I guess they are all connected and support each other in the fact that they are all totally brand new. Yeah, we always knew we’d need more pieces to get a good album’s worth of stuff I suppose, but also, for us, writing our own music has always been part of what we do and although we were taking a step away from that this time, it always needed some of our own music there for it to feel like The Shee.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
Errm… anything, then I add crisps. You’ve got to make dinner from a garage interesting somehow!
I had a good stare at the definition of the word continuum – ‘a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct’ – and the more I do the more complex and appropriate a title it seems. Why did you choose it?
Haha, yes we did the same thing. The more we looked at that the more it seemed to define some part of this larger musical journey we feel part of. We had the idea first and the name came second; it just seemed perfect. We hoped that it would describe to the composers what it was we were hoping to achieve without pinning them down to a theme or someone else’s definition of traditional music.
Do you feel a weight of responsibility in telling other people’s stories – so personal and, in the case of Martin Simpson’s Dance With Me, so tragic? Does it feel different to doing traditional songs where the writer isn’t known to you?
When we asked the composers whether they’d like to be involved in this project, I guess we were announcing that we were ready for the weight of that responsibility. We were honoured that the pieces they gave us were so personal; they could’ve kept more personal compositions to premier themselves. And it would have a been difficult to cover Martin’s song, for example, if he’d recorded it first, so I think it gave us the opportunity to work on songs we would normally have shied away from.
What’s been the highlight of your ten years together as a group? And what’s next for you?
It’s so hard to pin down a moment – I mean, this project has been pretty fantastic. It’s a long game being in a band. You don’t ever think, right, you’ve made it. Gigs go well and you never know if it made any difference. It’s hard, but so worth it. It’s also difficult to position yourself on ‘the fame scale’, and indeed whether it’s really important to be on it at all. We all just love making the music we love and if people like it, even better.
Hello! Just a little check-in, as there have been no updates for a while! In case you missed it, I was asked to interview Jim Moray for the final episode of the first series of the Low Culture Podcast. Jim and I talked about his excellent new album, Upcetera, which is out on September 30 – though if you order it now you can download and enjoy it straight away while you wait for the CD to arrive. Anyway, you can listen to the podcast here, or if you want to subscribe (the whole series is great, featuring chats with the likes of Jon Boden, Nancy Kerr and Lynched), here’s an iTunes link.
Also, I’ve just got back from a little visit to Sidmouth Folk Week. I didn’t make to any gigs as, sadly, I won’t be there for the whole week. However, there’s much more Sidmouth than the ticketed concerts, with the front, streets and pubs full of singing, dancing, fiery street theatre and people generally having a good time. It was very busy, with more stalls and things to do and see than usual, I think. Great to see the town buzzing! Here’s a photo from my flying visit – there’s a full gallery over on the Folk Witness Facebook page, if you’d like to see a few more. Give us a like while you’re there!
They’re a bit late to arrive, but all it takes is a charming apology and a beautiful song, and the West End Centre crowd instantly forgive Martin and Eliza Carthy. How could we not? The duo are remarkably fresh despite having spent who knows how many hours in a car, and when they play something as sweet, sad and perfect as their arrangement of Molly Drake’s Happiness, it’s hard to imagine them in something as prosaic as a traffic jam.
Martin & Eliza Carthy. Photo: Mark Dishman
Folkies will be well used to seeing Martin and Eliza playing together, but this is my first experience of seeing them as a duo, and there’s much joy to be had in simply witnessing their musical chemistry. Their innate understanding is conveyed with a complex series of nods, smiles, frowns and quizzical liftings of eyebrows, each with its own specific meaning.
And the result is beautiful. Opening with Her Servant Man, which shows off Martin’s distinctive, deliberate guitar playing and singing before Eliza adds her characterful fiddle, the pair go on to play all but one of the songs from The Moral of the Elephant (FW’s album of the year 2014).
Each song is introduced with thoughtful explanation, adding extra colour to pieces like Blackwell Merry Night, about a legendary lock-in, and Queen Caraboo, which tells the remarkable true story of an adventurous Devonian’s holiday to Bristol.
Following a week in which the news – dominated by senseless murder and the increasingly divisive and nasty referendum campaign – has made for a grim atmosphere, these upbeat songs offer a simple pleasure. But there is a real profundity to tonight’s show, too.
Grand Conversation on Napoleon – a song mourning Boney’s defeat, exile and death – and The Elephant – which tells of the blind men who have each touched a different part of the animal – initially seem like odd companion pieces. But as Eliza explains, they are united by the way they highlight nuance and the need to see the bigger picture. Popular perception is that Napoleon was hated by the British, but the catalogue of traditional song suggests ordinary working people may well have thought otherwise. And blind men arguing over something they don’t understand… well, you don’t need me to spell the resonance out for you.
You don’t need me to tell you what great players and singers Martin and Eliza Carthy are either, but it bears underlining. A couple of solo spots illustrate it perfectly: Martin’s The Bedmaking is sparky, sharp and inimitable, while Eliza’s take on Stephen Foster’s Nelly was a Lady is deeply moving. Concerning the death of a much-loved woman, it’s impossible not to think of Jo Cox, and Eliza’s intelligent, emotional delivery will stay with me for a long time.
Her vocals are brilliant too on the duo’s gorgeous Monkey Hair, written (with considerable insight) by Michael Marra, and on Waking Dream, a perfectly paced version of Awake Awake. Her fiddle playing is extraordinary, too, especially as an accompaniment to her dad’s masterful fretwork on the twisty-turny Bonny Moorhen. The duo end on a tune, a final flourish that allows us to once again marvel at that chemistry.
I’ve rarely felt so thankful for a gig; it felt important, even necessary. A bit of much-needed thoughtfulness in a world of obfuscation and agenda; some beauty with which to end an ugly week.
Folkie, rocker, singer-songwriter and False Light: Sam Carter has a lot of strings to his bow. After a false start while a lead in his recently dropped acoustic guitar (is it the same one recently left on a train? Oh dear) is reattached, Carter kicks off with Yellow Sign – a smart introduction, as it showcases his considerable skills in both storytelling (concise, evocative) and guitar playing (just ridiculously dextrous). Dreams Are Made of Money is more direct, catchy, angry and equally smart. Then it’s on to Taxi – a whimsical, jazzy swing piece, inspired by a chatty cabbie.
Matt Ridley (l) and Sam Carter. Photo: Emma Goymer
And if the first three songs show off a talent for variety, Carter – together with bass player Matt Ridley and drummer Evan Jenkins – soon reveals even more. His new album, How The City Sings, is an exploration of his now-native London. Entirely self-penned, it features gentle gems like its warm title track and Our Kind of Harmony, a charmer written for a pair of married pals. One Last Clue is another upbeat album highlight: inspired by “flirting over a crossword”, it is given pep by Jenkins’ jazzy drumming and Ridley’s somewhat saucy bass.
There is time for a couple of traditional tracks. Carter deconstructs False Lights’ complex arrangement of The Wife of Usher’s Well to reveal a Nic Jones-esque guitar line (when will acoustic traditional music catch on?), while he picks up his gorgeous electric guitar for an arse-kicking pre-interval Oh Dear Rue The Day.
It readies the (“unnervingly attentive”) audience for a noisier second half, kicked off by Dark Days – an immediate and less-than-delighted response to the re-election of the Tories last year. Carter clearly relishes the opportunity to give it some welly, furnishing the song with a brilliant, OK Computer-y solo. Counting the Cost turns into quite the soulful racket, while Taunting the Dog turns up the rock even further.
There’s still plenty of variation, though. The masterful The One is a brilliant post-divorce pen-portrait, given emotional heft by Ridley’s bowed bass. We Never Made It To The Lakes is witty and weary (“the most middle-class break-up song ever”), and Jack Hall is another visit to trad territory – a grim tale made oddly hilarious by its upbeat telling.
But it’s the powerful end to the set that makes the biggest impression. Drop the Bomb is all brawny chords and fantastic soloing – proving Carter is a master plugged in as well as acoustically. And an encore of Waves & Tremors adds a swampy bluesy sound to the evening’s palette of musical styles.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that he nails all of them. Put simply: all killer, no filler.
Bellowhead – the 11-piece folk colossus conceived by Jon Boden and John Spiers in a traffic jam in 2004 – are playing their last gig tonight. The long sold-out show at the Oxford Town Hall, where they played their first concert, will doubtless see them sign off in style. At heart, they’re a party band, so it’s going to be a hell of a night.
Bellowhead – black tie big noise (photo: Tom Barnes)
To bid Bellowhead farewell, here’s what we’ll miss about the band. *Sobs*
1. Jon Boden’s fashion sense. While he’s a great team player, Boden made the step up to frontman with panache. His bold stage presence come partly from his love of waving his arms around, but also some genre-defying fashion. The whole band has regularly indulged a passion for fancy dress – witness the Hedonism and Broadside covers, as well as those decadent New Year’s Eve gigs. But Boden deserves special mention for glamming up on stage too. His silver and pink suits made the most impact, but we also liked the sparkly silver waistcoat sported on the farewell tour, as well as the classy white jacket in the video for 10,000 Miles Away. Suit you, sir.
2. The stagecraft. Whether it was Jon Boden crooning atop an amp at the back of the stage, a big reveal of Sam Sweeney playing the bagpipes, Brendan Kelly’s double-sax showoffery, or Andy Mellon pulling pints and handing them out to the crowd, you could always rely on Bellowhead to keep things visually, as well as aurally, entertaining. Plus Benji Kirkpatrick’s heroic disregard for his knees, as he jumped off something really high in full-on rock posture mode, was always a sight to behold.
3. The tunes. It’s arguably harder to sell tunes to a broad modern audience, many of whom expect singing in everything apart from film scores and Tubular Bells. But Bellowhead sold them hard. The roars of approval whenever they announced they were going to play the Sloe Gin set, Frog’s Legs & Dragon’s Teeth, or Hudson’s Hornpipe/Parson’s Farewell, are testament to this.
4. The songs. The world of traditional song is packed with gems, and Bellowhead unearthed many weird and wonderful examples. You can take your pick, but the stratospheric Jordan, the sweet Fakenham Fair and the super-gross Black Beetle Pies were among the treasures. And subject matter was as salty as any folkie could reasonably hope for: booze, murder, theft, disease, shipwrecks: at one time the band finished their shows with a prostitute-themed two-song encore – London Town and New York Girls. You don’t get that with Coldplay.
5. The noise! You could leave a Bellowhead show with your ears ringing. There are a few groups on the scene capable of this (False Lights, farewell tour-support Mawkin) and though it’s probably damaging to your long-term health (here speaks a tinnitus sufferer: wear earplugs, kids) there’s a valuable adrenaline thrill to having your innards reverberated by a helicon. (PS: we also always enjoyed the slightly perverse insistence on playing Little Sally Racket, apparently bemusing large sections of the audience. Very much in the punk spirit of the arrangement.)
7. That they knew when to be quiet. Volume is all very well, but Bellowhead knew the value of light and shade, too – with the sublime Captain Wedderburn being perhaps the best example of this. Shh.
8. The arrangements. Where to start? The versatility of Bellowhead’s players was the key to the band’s genius. They brought in a huge range of influences, not least an inventive jazz sensibility. Among many examples there’s Fine Sally, which at points sounds like a particularly funky 1970s cop show theme. The band’s take on Bruton Town has a bit of reggae about it, while there are classical influences on the likes of Won’t You go My Way and the John Williams-esque Trip to Bucharest/Flight of the Folk Mutants. Their version of The Wife of Usher’s Well is operatic, Little Sally Racket pure punk, while Pete Flood’s progressive arrangements, for example the weird and woozy Moon Kittens, were always album highlights. And folk! There was a bit of folk music in there as well.
9. The exposure. In the modern era, it’s hard to overstate Bellowhead’s contribution to English traditional music. They helped bring a flourishing scene to a huge audience, winning places on Radio 2 playlists and earning silver discs for both Hedonism and Broadside. And the demographic was different: it was always heartening to see actual teenagers getting down to the jigs at the band’s shows. Surely many of them will have gone on to explore folk music further, and perhaps even to play and sing themselves.
10. That they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The band were proper musicians whose records deserve serious respect. But the success never went to their, er, Bellowheads. The group indulged in the fun festive tradition of the Christmas single, but were never less po-faced than when they were arsing about on stage: whether it was morris dancing, choreographing the actions to London Town, pulling pints or passing round the sunglasses to look cool for a solo, the focus was always on the fun. It made for some great gigs.
11. A Bus Song A Day. Okay, this probably belongs in the ‘not taking themselves too seriously’ category. But we loved the bus songs: conceived as a silly version of Boden’s A Folk Song A Day project in 2011, ABSAD ended up proving what top musicians (and comedians) the group were. Composing, recording and filming a video every day for more than a fortnight is no mean feat, especially when you’re on a bus. They’re all good, but we loved the Ipswich intro, the toastie-based hallucinations on the road to Manchester, and the strangely moving Rachael-Benji duet in Lincoln. Butter my parsnips, indeed.
12. The band! It’s unfair to pick individuals out, but as the Umbrellowhead compilation album of 2009 showed, Bellowhead was jam-packed full of some of the finest musicians around (and that’s not to forget former members). That their solo projects, other groups and collaborations might now get some more attention now it’s all over for the band is one of the split’s few consolations.
13. The music. I know, duh. But what a back catalogue. Inventive, diverse, thrilling, joyous, sinister and complex, songs and tunes like Cold Blows the Wind, Betsy Baker, Gosport Nancy, Cross-Eyed & Chinless, Copshawholme Fair, Fire Marengo, Widow’s Curse, Rochdale Coconut Dance, Kafoozalum… you get the idea. Yes, it is hard to pick a favourite.
So what of the future? The band’s members have too much talent not to come up with some interesting and delightful stuff in the coming months and years. The band’s success has been good for the trad scene, and hopefully they will have helped pave the way for some other acts to enjoy some big mainstream airtime too. And – though it’ll be difficult to corral 11 musicians – surely the band’s members can’t live without the adoration they get from audiences for too long? We could be looking at a hell of a comeback tour in a few years…
On a personal note – Bellowhead’s rise roughly coincided with my discovery of – and wholehearted conversion to – the world of folk music. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them nine times, and I loved every show, from the sweaty set at Brighton’s Concorde 2 where the power failed and Boden entertained with an a capella version of The Maid of Australia, to the epic Broadside launch show, to their gig at Kew Gardens in 2013 when FW photographer Simon and I necked too much wine and danced with beautiful strangers. Their songs and tunes remind me of wonderful people and experiences, and I’ll miss them. I love you, Bellowhead.
Folk songs are full of death, deception and devastation. Yet a good folk gig is often a heart-warming thing: ideally you’ll leave full of cheer (and perhaps beer), having enjoyed a good laugh and perhaps a singalong or two. The subject matter might be chilling, but your heart is warmed.
The Furrow Collective – Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts – exemplify this paradox perfectly. Much of their material is grim stuff indeed: there are tales of ghosts, deception, murder, dangerous pigs and hanging – plus the odd heartbroken lament. But the packed-to-the-gills Greys pub is full of people having a great time, on-stage and off.
The quartet, comprised of talented and singular songwriters, focus for the most part on traditional material. This perhaps makes it more difficult for them (any group that does traditional stuff, in fact) to form an identity – as opposed, to, say, a band who exclusively write their own songs, and whose members don’t routinely collaborate with others. ‘Trad bands’ must express themselves through the songs they choose, the way they arrange them, and finally the way they perform them.
And if gloom is a folk song staple anyway, what makes the Furrows special? One thing is the way they excavate and celebrate a certain weirdness in the canon’s murk.
King Henry, for example, is flat-out bizarre. It’s the story of an ogress who demands that the titular monarch feeds her a barnful of livestock and a horseful of wine, before coaxing him into bed. The tale is already leavened somewhat by Farrell’s suggestion that we picture Fiona from Shrek, but the song’s strangeness is accentuated by the group’s arrangement, which turns the disturbing call for “more meat!” into a chirpy refrain. They pull off the same trick later on Wild Hog in the Woods, in which the cry of “kill him if you can!” becomes a darkly cheerful exclamation.
There’s more to it than the sheepish ‘here’s another song about death, chuckle” intro you hear at a lot of gigs, too. Much of the set – such as the farcical Queen Eleanor’s Confession – is shot through with a perverse humour. It’s even evident on the flyer for the show, which depicts a landscape full of frightening cartoon creatures, one of which is being ‘collected’ by a brave field recordist with a microphone.
Not that the show ever lacks sincerity and gravitas. Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather, led by Newton, is a seemingly simple tale of a gentleman’s attempt to woo a country lass. Roberts’ highly-strung guitar and Portman’s whistling concertina fill it with tension – the music adding a sinister subtext that might otherwise be absent. Which is both deliciously clever and, well, exactly the point.
Elsewhere, the brilliant Willie’s Fatal Visit is icy cold, and The Unquiet Grave is given a woozy ghostliness by Farrell’s musical saw. The Blantyre Explosion tells soberly of nineteenth-century mining disaster in Lanarkshire. Roberts takes the lead, and his colleagues add heavenly harmonies.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest the entire set is made up of horror stories. On I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep, a shepherd’s uplifting celebration of the simple life, the whole pub follows Farrell in chorus. Later, she can barely get through Poor Old Horse, which is sung (wildly inappropriately) in celebration of a couple of audience members’ birthdays. Fits of giggles envelop band and audience alike as each incongruous line is sung.
The ‘collective’ element of the Furrows means the set is brilliantly balanced, and full of variety. Not only can you enjoy each member’s lead vocals – and they’re all different, all great – but in terms of pooled resources you also get a wide selection of English, Scottish and Irish songs, and various instrumental talents, as well as the aforementioned beautiful harmonies.
Roberts’ spidery guitar forms the backbone of many of the songs, with subtle augmentation coming from banjo, concertina, harp and fiddle – Farrell’s percussive playing really gives something extra to the already sprightly Hind Horn, for example.
It’s hard to imagine a fan of any of the foursome’s work elsewhere not liking The Furrow Collective. It’s a group that plays to the strengths of its members, allowing them to shine individually, but with a cohesive sound and dynamic: more than the sum of its parts, full of ideas, fun, melancholy, cleverness and weirdness. And all this in a pub that hands out free Easter eggs during the interval. Heart warmed, truly.
I wrote a (shorter) review of this gig for The Argus in Brighton – I’ll put up a link if they upload it, but it might turn out to be a print-only thing…