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.
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.)
6. The energy. It’s hard to get people up and dancing on the arts centre circuit. But Bellowhead’s necessarily big venues combined with their irresistible spirit got folk dancing up and down the land. And I mean really dancing: Bellowhead audiences actually broke festival dance floors three times with their passionate polkas.
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.