Wednesday 13 November 2013


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Bellowhead are not so much a folk band as more of an 11-player full orchestra, they know how to put on a show, infect people with musical enthusiasm and are dripping with talent.

John Boden who fronts Bellowhead
Sam Sweeney as the lone piper opened proceedings under a single spotlight followed by John Boden's distinctive voice coming out through the darkness before the full gamut of the band was revealed to great applause from a sold out Symphony Hall crowd. Jordan was one of the opening songs which set the pace for the rest of the night with the band never letting up, much to the delight of the assembled fans.
They followed this up with 10,000 Miles Away, a track from their most recent album Broadside, which gave free reign to the, somewhat animated, brass section comprising Andy Mellon on trumpet, Brendan Kelly on sax, Ed Neuhauser on the mighty tuba and Justin Thurgur on trombone. These were backed up by Pete Flood on the drums and frying pan, John Spiers on melodeon and Benji Kirkpatrick on banjo. Although as the night went on there was a bewildering amount of instrument changes that was as much a spectacle as the performance and songs themselves.
Sweeney got the chance to show his expertise on the fiddle with a tune he wrote called Hudson's Hornpipe which segued into The Parson's Farewell and was accented by some beautiful oboe inserts from Paul Sartin and the brass section even threw in some nautical dance moves for free.
The audience became the 12th man when they pulled another favourite from Broadside, Roll the Woodpile Down, a sea shanty which Boden boomed out.
They eased it down a notch with some slip jigs which gave the limelight to the lovely cello sound of Rachael McShane who was backed up by Kirkpatrick this time on the bouzouki and fiddles coming from all directions.
The band, which will have been together for 10 years next year, then moved into a fairly, harshly sung tune for a love song, Betsy Baker, with Boden adding his voice to his fiddle playing out front.
As if there weren't enough instruments flying around they then pulled out a xylophone and a glockenspiel for one of those songs Bellow do best. Black Beetle Pies has that sinister, brooding sound with a dark undertone like something from a dodgy victorian sideshow fair or a sinister travelling circus where nothing is quite what it seems.
Although Boden's singing style, which you can hear every week now on the new intro for Mark Radcliffe's Radio2 Folk Show, doesn't really lend itself to soft ballads but Cross the Line was perhaps the gentlest song of the night which had more than a touch of the sea shanty about it.
There was another sinister sounding offering with Life of Man occasionally became a cacophony in which the sounds of the individual instruments were lost. It was reminiscent of Cabaret with that 1930s German hedonistic club sound.
Bellowhead's latest album Broadside
Flood came into his own and let rip with his drums on Thousands or More which were backed up by the lively and boisterous brass section then, within the bizarreness which is Bellowhead, there was the even more bizarrely named Unclothed Nocturnal Manuscript Crisis which really gave Boden a chance to show just how good he is on the fiddle. It was given a deep funk rhythm and pulled along by the speeding bagpipes of Sweeney which somehow gave it almost a Turkish/Middle Eastern twang.
There was a lovely fiddle opening which tipped over into sounding Jewish for the next tune which slip jigged into a more Celtic sound via Sweeney who carried it on into Haul Away which is a sea shanty that was topped off by the band 'rigging jigging'.
They then blasted out another favourite from Broadside, Lillibulero before moving over into the Sloe Gin Set, it opened with the melodeon and then like most of their songs just took off with Boden, Sweeney and Sartin showing off their morris dancing. This then switched to a jig with Boden back on the fiddle that literally got the audience dancing in the aisles.
Towards the end of the set they kept the audience hopping with one of their most popular hits New York Girls.
Like most Bellowhead concerts you have to strap in and enjoy the ride, the versatility, talent, diversity, originality, experimentation and enthusiasm they display is breathtaking and if Fairport Convention hadn't have done it more than 30 odd years ago then this band of visionary musicians would have definitely broken the mould.

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