With apologies for mentioning them in the first sentence, can you believe it’s been a year since Bellowhead split up? We miss them, but the group’s various members have been keeping busy, not least frontman Jon Boden who, he tells us, started work on this third solo album almost immediately after the band’s last gig at the Oxford Town Hall.
But before we hear from Boden, there’s a support slot. As it happens, we saw Laura Hockenhull recently, supporting Jim Causley at The Greys. There, her mostly a cappella set suited the pub perfectly. In this more traditional venue, she has backing from Dan Edwards, a fellow member of The Long Hill Ramblers who’s usually assigned to banjo but who tonight assumes guitar duties as well. He adds laid-back, soulful backing to a set with an American feel. Hockenhull is brilliant with a lively take on Jean Ritchie’s Over the River to Feed My Sheep – a ‘play party’ song, she tells us (an excellent concept). Other highlights include a bluesy Bright Sunny South and two well-chosen covers: Gillian Welch’s Dark Turn of Mind and the Carter Family’s Broken Hearted Lover.
After a short break, Boden carefully bounds (if that’s possible) on to the stage. He might not be sharing it with ten other people, but there are at least six musical instruments, plus pedals, wires and what appear to be two enormous gramophone speakers to negotiate. The lofty singer is also perched upon a stomp box, which puts his head (and some of the aforementioned instruments) perilously close to the Komedia’s ceiling.
Not that he minds. Boden exudes cheerfulness, and immediately establishes a rapport with the crowd. He opens with a version of Rigs of the Time, which is given menace and atmosphere by meaningfully bowed and plucked fiddle and a clever contraption that means he can play shruti box via a foot pedal. With its talk of honesty being “out of fashion” and the potential downfall of powerful rascal, it’s an instant reminder of the canny perma-relevance of traditional songs. A wry quip about Brexit and we’re away.
Boden’s versatility is key to what turns out to be a thrilling set. He takes us through a mixture of traditional and original material, songs and tunes, making sure to perform them on what seems to be a constantly rotating roster of instruments. He takes time to talk the audience through the concepts behind his solo albums, the songs of which poetically examine personal interactions against apocalyptic backdrops. Days Gone By speaks of “Gods ascending through a tarmac sky”, while Bee Sting – from upcoming album Afterglow – conjures vivid images of two people in a private world at a public event.
And there’s plenty to keep Bellowhead fans happy, too. Boden shows such verve for rearrangement that I don’t want to spoil which of the songs in the band’s repertoire he chooses to play – the pleasure is often in the surprise – though I’ll make an exception for the lilting, romantic 10,000 Miles Away, which is some distance from its gung-ho cousin, and moving in a completely different way. (Don’t worry though – there are plenty of raucous singalong opportunities, too. A song from the Burlesque album prompts me to simply write the words ‘effing great’ in my notepad.)
It’s a trick repeated in what in less sensitive hands could be a stunt cover version – a take on Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Boden lays bare the sadness of the lyric (“When the night falls/The loneliness calls) with total sincerity, his vocal perfectly pitched. It’s lovely. He applies the same skill to a music hall song called Old Brown’s Daughter, which balances pathos and bathos with an amusing payoff.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Boden fills the set with dramatic interludes, including one stomp ‘n’ clap number that demonstrates the power of percussion (and lighting), and several tunes – including the familiar-sounding Radstock Jig – that are given doomy, dramatic overtones by that pedal-powered shruti.
Through it all, Boden looks to be having a wonderful time – a feeling quite obviously shared by the audience. Like I said, we miss Bellowhead, but more of this sort of thing is a rich alternative.