Bellowhead, Fairfield Halls, Croydon


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Anyone who still assumes folk is fey and wet – whether thinking of over-earnest trad types or recent Brit award winners – would have such notions thoroughly blasted by an hour or two in the company of the red-blooded Bellowhead.

An 11-strong band of multi-instrumentalists, featuring everything from the sousaphone to the megaphone, they play folk standards, sea shanties, and dance songs, all given new arrangements. And they're delivered with such rumbustious pomp and verve, it's impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it. Bellowhead are on their fourth album now, but records don't do them justice, tending to flatten out what is a rich, rousing sound.

And they aren't just warm and jolly; watching them live leaves you in no doubt they are seriously good players too. Cumbrian jig 'Hopkinson's Favourite' starts off with syncopated brass before showcasing terrifyingly speedy mandolin and fiddle playing; 'Amsterdam' opens with muted trumpet and a cabaret-style groove, then swells to a stirring, oom-pah-pah waltz. 'Captain Wedderburn' gives full reign to Jon Boden's sonorous vocals, over finger-picked and pizzicato strings. He introduces it as an ancient riddle ballad, “like that bit in The Hobbit, but with better looking characters” - and it's true that he makes a dashing frontman, standing with legs wide apart and pulling pop-star poses.

Not that Boden is really a band leader – most of them stand in a long line at the front of the stage, and it's very much a musical collective. It's the last night of Bellowhead's tour, but I suspect that on any given evening they'd look like they're having a ball. They jig around the stage on lively numbers such as 'Haul Away' and 'London Town', as thousands of toes in the audience (largely seated, alas) tap furiously.

As well as telling us the origins of many of these traditional tunes before they play them, the band have also mastered the art of pointing out wry contemporary parallels. The Gothicky, rackety, 'Black Beetle Pies' is about “a lady in Brixton mis-selling meat” - perhaps insects will be cropping up in ready-made lasagne's soon too? - while 'Old Dun Cow' is “a song about drinking heavily while flagrantly flouting health and safety regulations”. But while such a breezy, comic approach to tradition helps it all feel easily accessible, it's really Bellowhead's own flamboyant bounce that makes these historical numbers feel fresh, and completely irresistible.