No surprises here: it is a joy to have Bellowhead back, playing loudly in big, busy rooms. The sense of occasion, the glamour, the sheer exhilaration of the band’s brilliant racket has survived their six-year hiatus. We knew that, of course, from their lockdown gig, weirdly punctuated as it was by the pre-recorded applause Jon Boden wryly played into his mic between songs.
They’re back – properly back, greeted with real noise – ostensibly to mark the 10th anniversary of their album Broadside (read our track-by-track review from 2012). Swarming on to a galleon-themed set, the band begins with its triumphant opener Byker Hill. The soaring/pining Betsy Baker features early on too, but it’s Broadside’s knottier numbers – the ones less often played in the ten years since its release – that stand out.
The gig is a reminder of a group that, following the success of 2010’s Hedonism (which went silver, selling 60,000 copies), felt emboldened to explore more complex, outré arrangements. The sturm-und-drang Wife of Usher’s Well, for example, or the insane-when-you-think-about-it funk freakout version of Old Dun Cow. Black Beetle Pies (fairly bonkers subject matter, for starters) somehow blends Madness with demonic chanting, while its joyous flipside, Thousands or More, adds a restless, feverish energy that isn’t in the Coppers’ version – but which somehow makes perfect sense.
Remarkably, none of that feels inaccessible. But just in case we also get the album’s supremely punchy 10,000 Miles Away and Lillibulero – the latter particularly dear to a Sussex audience.
Equally so is the night’s main tribute to Bellowhead’s oboe, cor anglais and fiddle player Paul Sartin, who sadly died in September. Brisk Lad might be a song from Dorset, but anything referring to ‘the Downs’ reverberates strongly in this part of the world. And ‘reverberate’ is the word: a recording of Sartin’s mighty vocal is wisely accorded minimal accompaniment, which fades out to give him the final verse alone. It’s a poignant tribute to him – and the song’s tale of hardship makes it especially relevant in these straitened times, too.
Away from Broadside, there are a number of bangers to be done – Sartin’s joyful arrangement of London Town among them. The Sloe Gin and Frog’s Legs/Dragon’s Teeth tune sets are mightily, dazzlingly fun, while the crowd roars Haul Away and New York Girls back at Boden and his crew.
The sheer pleasure of Bellowhead is as evident as ever, from the “badly researched period drama” brass section stage left to the “Saturday Night Fever” strings (with Sally Hawkins doing a good job standing in for Sartin) on the right. Playing music rarely looks this fun: we can’t help but hope the band will consider making their comeback more than fleeting.
Bellowhead are on tour until November 28. See the full list of dates here
Main image: Simon Rogers