Review for Slate the Disco
Photograph courtesy of Richard Etteridge Photography
As musical relationships go, then the one between Bellowhead and the city of Cambridge is a pretty well established one. With several appearances among the highlights of recent Folk Festivals, a dependable annual date on their nationwide tours, and more than a few local gigs from Bellowhead founders Spiers and Boden over the years; it’s quite clear that there’s an irregular romance at play here, an occasional bunk up if you will. And while there are band members of Oxford origin and there is always a University joke in a live show at some point, there’s a definite mutual attraction between the two. And on Friday night, they were back. Playing to a packed out Corn Exchange, the current flag bearers of the UK folk scene showed that once again, there is still no live show in the land that is quite like theirs.
As bewildering as it is impressive, and as anarchic as it is professional; a Bellowhead gig is still a sight to be reckoned with, and they are showing absolutely no sign of changing their ways. Following an absorbing introduction from support band ‘Moulettes’, playing cheery numbers described as “catastrophic tales of humankind’s own demise”, the curtain fell for the main event, and you didn’t quite know where to look. On a stage littered with a fantastic array of instruments, assorted foliage and shrubbery and the odd piece of lounge furniture, stood Bellowhead. Or rather ‘danced’ Bellowhead. Before the curtain had even hit the floor, they were off, and they didn’t quite stop for another 90 minutes.
Led by front man Jon Boden in a striking red suit, the band opened with ‘Let Her Run’, a reworked sea shanty, and in doing so raised the temperature in the room almost instantaneously. The nautical theme followed immediately on, with ’10’000 Miles Away’ talking of long distance sea journeys before ‘Roll Alabama’ arrived, the tale of a Birkenhead born ship which met it’s fate across the Atlantic. For anyone familiar with the work of the group, three songs of similar themes in a row is almost non-existent, as variation is something the band do particularly well. With both originals and borrowed verse from age old songs and poems, they have the ability to span centuries across songs, weaving characters, locations and legends into a bewildering large array of topics. Indeed, from the nautical arrangements we moved onto the delightful ‘Jack Lintel’s Jig’, a folk song of Northern origin which grows into a euphoric climax, before travelling south and to “songs of heartbreak from Swindon….the worst kind”, in ‘Betsy Baker’.
Of course, the foundations upon which all of these tales can be told is the music, and whether playing while bounding around the stage or reclining on a settee, the eleven piece band have an array of talent which is astonishing. Brass players, fiddlers, all manners of percussion, mandolins…you name it, they play it. Soloists pop up here and there mid-song, carrying your eyes over across the stage, before a blast of trumpets has you darting back again. Violinists become tin whistlers, Saxophonists morph into Clarinettists – everyone involved seems to play all manner of things. The tone can change too, ‘Captain Wedderburn’ slowed things down with delightful male-female vocals from Boden and Rachael McShane on strings, but it’s in full flow that the band are at their finest. A series of songs came and went in quick succession – ‘Gosport Nancy’, ‘Fine Sally’ and old favourite ‘Whiskey is the Life of Man’ – all played with as much enjoyment by the band on stage as there was with those in the crowd. Band members take turns to introduce each number, including John Spiers in his Cambridge Blue scarf barely audible with a rasping throat, and there’s almost a music hall pantomime style to some of the quips that come both between and during songs.
Bellowhead have a habit of upkeeping folk traditions, in both the creation of their own using traditional methods, but more so in recycling ancient songs and putting them to their own beat. We had ‘Rosemary Lane’, a take on ‘Scarborough Fair‘ “with a different title, tune and lyrics”, ‘Cross eyed and Chinless’ – which is a rehashed version of Scottish Folk reel ‘Regent’s Favourite’ – and then perhaps their finest recreation of all to close in ‘New York Girls’.
They weren’t quite done yet however. Returning for the obligatory encore, they somehow mustered up the energy for two more. ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ was performed as boisterously as ever, before the band had the entire room bouncing as one to ‘Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth’, a glorious finale to another raucously entertaining evening. As the final chords were thrashed out, and all involved collapsed in a sweaty heap, there was a definite moment where the band breathlessly propped themselves up onto one elbow, gave a knowing smile to the Cambridge crowd and whispered, “Same again next time, eh?”