On the surface, Bellowhead’s music is probably not for everyone: a cacaphonous 11-piece band consisting of a horn section, a string section, a guitarist/lutist/mandolinist, the occasional Northumbrian pipes and a percussionist, with a tuba laying down the bass lines – most of the musicians are multi-instrumentalists, including their lead singer who doubles on fiddle. The music usually consists of dissonant, melodious (I know that is contradictory, but you’ve got to hear it) radio-unfriendly arrangements backing lyrics that range from traditional sea shanties to Rudyard Kipling poems. The choruses to most of their songs, although hooky, are damn near impossible to sing along to because of the quirky arrangements, but are infectious, nonetheless. And their music kicks ass!
They are a folk band, but it would be doing their music a disservice by pigeonholing it to one genre. I think if I could classify it, it would be over multiple genres: a sort of punky, avant-garde, non-traditional, robust, high-energy, folk that lends itself better to live performance than to a sitting-down-and-listening-to-the-cd experience. Sort of John Zorn/Fred Frith with a big band meets the Pogues with a well-spoken lead singer.
Last night, I had the opportunity to confirm that classification for myself as they played the Brighton Dome.
I only recently discovered them, about two years ago. They did a BBC4 English folk music Christmas special (with a few other folk acts such as the Unthanks) and were absolutely captivating. The wife and I decided that they would most definitely be a band to see live. We had tickets to their show last year, but regretfully bailed because an insignificant family crisis had arisen – we really should have gone to that one, in hindsight.
To start with, one thing was abundantly clear: the average demographic appeared to be in the late-50s to early-60s bracket. There was a peppering of people like me just beginning their journeys through middle-age, as well as a few younger hipsters. But you could not get around the fact that the average hair colour ranged between grey and white in that crowd.
We ordered water at the bar but were told that they could not give us the caps for the bottles. Why? Health and Safety: the crowd might get out of hand and start throwing their plastic bottle caps at the bands. I looked around and marveled. No doubt many of the people in the audience could have been around for the early years of Punk (we’re talking Anne Arbor 1968 rather than London 1975), but you would think that they would have grown out of those habits by now. I mean, would dentures get in the way of spitting on the band?
Luckily, by the time the intermission came around the ‘elfin safety’ officer appeared to have relented as we were allowed to keep our bottle caps with subsequent bottle purchases.
[Another sign that we were dealing with an older audience was that there were queues for the men’s loo, and none for the women’s. Someone in the queue said it was because the men were hitting the beer hard. I had to bite my tongue: I would posit that it had more to do with prostate issues for men, and the fact that women become sensible about their liquid intake the older they get.]
Anyway, the opening act was a three-piece group from Switzerland called Mama Rosin. They did a fantastic, noise-filled set composed of Cajun- and Zydeco-influenced boogie. Definitely now have their CD on my “to-buy” list.
I am always amazed at the amount of loudness a 3-piece band is capable of (Violent Femmes, Rush, and Cream, to name a few). Mama Rosin did the tradition proud. Amazing how loud a drum-set, a guitar, and a squeezebox can be.
They brought a lot of energy to their performance, and their halting English between songs made their rawness even more charming.
And now to the main act…
What can I say about Bellowhead? I have, it seems, deliberately learned very little about their background (I do know that one of my daughter’s former violin teachers knows one of them, but that’s about it.)
There is so much going on in their music that it seems almost anarchic. But the perfect synchronisation of the lights with the music and the stage blocking/choreography indicates a discipline and a tightness that one rarely encounters in smaller bands, let alone a band as large as Bellowhead. And there is a lot going on.
And they pull it off really well on stage. Despite having a lead singer with an amazing charismatic stage presence, one always gets the impression that this is truly an ensemble, with very little focus on one person. Each musician is given their chance to show off, and the vocals, although delivered with the intensity of a Baptist preacher at a tent revival, remain one instrument amongst others.
The intensity of the music grew as the night progressed, and I almost wish we had been down on the floor in the general admission area so we could dance, but with my currently bum foot, and my wife’s baby bump, I still don’t think it would be a good idea. But they managed to get a lot of silver-haired near-pensioners bobbing up and down and clapping and stomping, so there is a true method to their madness.
I had one major niggle, though: they were the victims of the poor live sound engineering that is endemic at gigs in Britain. I don’t know what it is about live sound here in Blighty, but they never get it right. As there is a lot going on, one loses key bits of the music in the mix, with the vocals, in particular, getting buried underneath the other layers, making it impossible to really get people involved in singalongs, as they can’t hear the lyrics in the first place. As usual, a great band is let down (just a bit) by poor sound engineering.
And they didn’t play my favourite song by them, “Cholera Camp,” but given the strength of their latest album Broadside, there was plenty of good newer material to warrant keeping it off the set that they did play.
Sound engineering and demographic reservations aside, I cannot but highly recommend their live show (and their studio albums). If you get a chance, and you enjoy good, professional musicianship and good entertainment, these are the guys to watch.
I would go so far as to say that if they toured the US with the same level of energy they displayed last night, they would soon have a following over there bigger than what they currently enjoy (let’s hope they never cotton on to that opportunity!) As it is, I suspect the next year will be a big year for them, and I suspect they will be the talk of the Summer festival season, with a bit of exposure on Radio 1 (if not already – I don’t listen to the radio at all), just because this sort of talent won’t be held back regardless of its lack of pop sensibility.