Bellowhead, Billy Bragg, Karine Polwart: Kew Gardens, London, July 14 2013

What better sound, as you walk into a leafy and quiet Kew Gardens, could greet you than the Karine Polwart trio’s gentle, cinematic hum? We arrive as she’s introducing Cover Your Eyes, her iron-fist-velvet-glove riposte to Donald Trump and his Aberdeenshire golf course aberration. The song, and the setting, is beautiful.

Billy Bragg Kew
Billy Bragg and band at Kew the Music. Photo: Simon Rogers

The cold, unforgiving dune system Polwart (who Folk Witness interviewed last year) describes in the song is squarely at odds with the scene in front of us. A golden summer’s day is coming to an end, and a relaxed ‘Kew the Music’ audience, divided somewhat strangely into a series of pens, are picnicking on the drying grass. Kew’s series of shows are sponsored by John Lewis – so the standard of eating is pretty good (during Tears for Lot’s Wife, a nice lady offers me some cheese, which doesn’t happen very often at gigs): “Who’s got the poshest picnic?” asks Polwart. Champagne and Pimm’s are mentioned as arbiters of swank, before guitarist Steven Polwart chips in: “Anyone got any Irn-Bru?”

Maybe not. Still, the trio find ways to relate to the audience – We’re All Leaving, about Charles Darwin’s struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter, has a certain resonance, given the botanical location. And it’s hard not to get swept along with the optimism of Rivers Run. But it’s the group’s finale that really soars. King of Birds, inspired in part by Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, sounds clear and crisp in the evening air. Polwart’s lengthy, involving introduction tells the tale of how the wren out-thought the eagle to become the king of birds; the jumbo jets that periodically fly overhead, en route to Heathrow, provide an interesting counterpoint.

The planes are thoroughly drowned out, however, by Billy Bragg, who good-naturedly moans that critics have accused him of “going country”. Along with his band, he plays a countrified No One Knows Nothing Anymore (“alliteration trumps grammar,” he tells us) followed by Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, which is slathered in lovely, rich pedal steel. It’s one of many of Bragg’s Woody Guthrie collaborations of the night, as he celebrates Woody’s 101st birthday. “All you fascists are bound to lose!” yells Bragg, before leading his band into a rollicking performance. We might be at Waitrose-fest (the week has seen the consumption of “a tonne and a half” of artisan bread, apparently), but we’re most certainly not down with the EDL and its absurd Spanish ex-pat division.

Bellowhead Kew
Bellowhead haul away for Rosie. Photo: Simon Rogers

Bragg uses variety to keep the momentum going during his set. There’s another Guthrie song – a children’s one, about wetting the bed – and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Dead Flowers, before he plays his own Handyman Blues, woozy and soulful. He’s not shy of his own hits, either – Sexuality is a treat, with the audience providing backing vocals as a matter of course. Karine Polwart returns to the stage to sing along on A New England, which is prefaced by a heartfelt, moving plea for the abandonment of cynicism. “Didn’t he do well?” asks Kew’s somewhat cheesy MC. Quite.

With crossover success definitively achieved (Broadside crashed the top 20, let’s not forget), it’s a delight to see Bellowhead playing to such a large crowd. They’re born for it, too, opening with Hedonism’s Yarmouth Town and maintaining a furious pace throughout their frenetic, thrilling set. Recent singles 10,000 Miles Away and Betsy Baker are played early, and sharp-suited frontman Jon Boden makes a fine vocal impression. He does ‘longing’ well – you can empathise with his heartfelt sighs over Betsy, and an impassioned performance of Fakenham Fair is also deeply impressive.

The crowd do not take long to respond and are soon dancing with blithe abandon (hello, dance party-starters Emma and Ellen), particularly as the band begin to focus on their tunes. The Haul Away set (see video below, taken at the National Forest Folk Festival) winds up the momentum, but interestingly it’s Sam Sweeney’s bagpipe part in Unclothed Nocturnal Manuscript Crisis that really gets the ‘pit’ going. People like bagpipes! And Sam Sweeney, of course.

Cross-Eyed and Chinless is another hit, Pete Flood’s slippery, shimmering drums kicking off what turns into a mighty crescendo. Honestly, and perhaps a bit unprofessionally, Folk Witness’s memory isn’t quite as sharp as it could be on this (we are quite drunk), but it’s impossible to forget the eccentrically-dressed Benji Kirkpatrick’s foot-on-the-monitor antics, nor the uproarious singalong to New York Girls, nor the brilliant – and appropriate – London Town, with Boden holding a sustained “riiiiiiiiigs” for an absurdly long period. The finale of Frog’s Legs and Dragon’s Teeth is devastating, proof if any more were needed that Bellowhead are perhaps this country’s finest live band, in any genre. Our trip home is a confusion of missed trains, tiredness and lack of co-ordination, but we, and doubtless the rest of the crowd, are happy.

Folk Witness thanks to Brown Brothers Wine, whose deliciously crisp dry Muscat is part of the reason this review wasn’t written until today

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