There’s something to be said about arriving to the party fashionably late. I tend to err on this side, and my discovery of the former folk institution known as Bellowhead falls into the category.
Now I shall mention that I do not wish to divulge too much in this short thought-story as I am in the process of outlining a novel on the subject of English folk music and perhaps possibly veering toward penning a book on this wonderful band that many have come to know and love.
So take heed that what you are about to read is but a snippet of what is yet to come.
What exactly is Bellowhead you might be wondering? When referring to this band I struggle with the usage of past tense. Sadly this is the reality as 1st May 2016 an intimate crowd in Oxford bore witness to their last ever performance. Yes, I rigorously attempted to score tickets to this much sought-after show but sadly to no avail.
Bellowhead was hatched from the minds of folk duo Spiers and Boden in an effort to headline at a folk festival. Anyone out there, please correct me if I am wrong. I will not hold a grudge.
Calling on all corners of the musical spectrum, John and Jon gathered musicians versed in jazz, classical, folk and other genres. Brass, percussion and strings were united in marriage resulting in the birth of Bellowhead. 11 unique individuals who somehow made this concept work. Technically this should not have worked but amazingly it did.
So there is my short and brief intro to this musical ensemble. Now why am I writing this you might ask? Bellowhead was my official introductory to English folk music.
Accidents do happen
I was on Amazon placing an order, and for the life of me I cannot recall exactly what the item was, but Beginner’s Guide to English Folk was offered as a recommendation. I took a chance and added the 3-disc compilation to my basket not having listened to a single sound clip. Actually if memory serves correct, sampling the item was not even an option. When my purchase arrived, I curiously popped the discs into my CD player, and the first song presented was “Yarmouth Town” by Bellowhead. This would become my baptism into folk music.
I was accustomed to American folk music. Guitars, singers and little accompaniment. But I was not prepared for what I heard on my newly acquired musical playlist. As the next songs followed, I began to realize that what I was hearing were various interpretations of age-old songs. Needless to say I was online ordering Hedonism by Bellowhead because I knew I just had to hear more. And then the domino effect gave way, and I was purchasing music by a multitude of artists.
This was a struggle at times as it was difficult to find affordable folk music in the States. So I found myself on Amazon UK ordering CDs and waiting impatiently for them to arrive.
Speaking of Hedonism……
Bellowhead’s discography consists of eight full-length CDs, that is if you wish to include a best of, live and compilation of individual band member pieces. They also spawned an extended-play disc consisting of five tracks.
As a connoisseur of music in general, I have a tendency of listening to songs with a very critical ear. In Bellowhead’s case, I found it rather difficult to find fault among their catalog. Given that, each album contains pieces that, in my opinion, are pure genius. Therefore, I honestly enjoy all of their records if just for a few tracks.
If I were forced to choose a favourite I would have to select Hedonism. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the thought that this was my first Bellowhead disc. But mainly because it contains a brilliant rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam”. As a fan of Jacques, I was waiting to hear the band fail at their attempt to bring justice to this haunting song. However, I was wrong. If anything, Brendan Kelly’s melancholy arrangement highlighted singer Jon Boden’s vocal abilities compelling them to greater heights. To this day I still well up a bit when I hear it.
So I tend to pick Hedonism out and take it for a spin quite often. However, I do find myself pulling out any of their other pieces just for a change of pace.
If you do not own a Bellowhead album, I suggest you add one to your library. They are all strong in their own merits. If you tend toward more eclectic and art-driven arrangements, might I recommend either Burlesque or Matachin? If more fun yet quirky is your speed then Broadside is for you. But I cannot omit Revival solely for the sake of “Roll Alabama” and Pete Flood’s quirky “Moon Kittens”.
The Quintessential Live Band
As I continued my self-schooling on all things folk, I began to work my way around YouTube in an effort to see any footage of these acts performing live and learned of various folk festivals throughout England.
Then it happened, I stumbled upon a video of Bellowhead live, and I knew that somehow I would have to experience one of their spectacles if not in the States in England.
From what I saw, they presented not a simple concert but a spectacle, if you will. The audiences were on their feet dancing and singing along. It was almost as if Bellowhead was allowing the audience to be part of the band for that night. Jon presented choruses so the audience could sing along. Their performance was something I had never seen before.
Being that Bellowhead was a massive band, I knew the chances of them ever touring the states was nil. So I began to determine a logical way to see them perform live in England. After all from every account I have heard and read, their live shows were something you had to experience.
I had been informed that they typically hosted a November tour each year. A brilliant plan began to unfold where I could combine my research trip (see above reference to folk novel) and a Bellowhead show. So I patiently waited until the next round of tour dates was to be announced, and finally the email appeared in my box.
Farewell Tour What??
Have you ever read something and you knew for sure you read it wrong? That was the thought that kept racing around in my mind as I scanned the email announcing Bellowhead’s final tour. I must have studied the email a good three times before it sunk in. The band decided to perform two legs: one in November 2015 and one in April 2016. Pulling out my calculator I began to devise a way that I could attend both legs. In any case, I had never seen them live and this was the prime opportunity.
I selected dates that I called “Plan A” and “Plan B”. At the top of Plan A’s list were tickets to the Oxford finale show followed by other logical options based on regional locations. Can I tell you that 4:00 AM is far too early to attempt buying concert tickets? Due to the time zone difference I found myself in front of my computer around 3:30 to ensure everything was working proper. As the clock leapt to 4:00 I was on the ticket website with a pair of Oxford tickets in my basket. As I checked out I received the “We’re sorry but they are no longer available” message. What the hell? So off I went in search of my next options happy that I least managed to obtain seats at two shows in November and two shows in April.
The Bellowhead Experience
I lost my Bellowhead virginity at the New Wimbledon Theatre on 18th November 2015. I took the Tube to the very last stop at Wimbledon and wandered my way toward the theatre.
Surprisingly my seats were not located in the nosebleed section and were center stage. Eagerly I awaited with immense anticipation for the entrance of Bellowhead.
Now I must pause for a moment to describe the difference between the concert performances I have attended in the States (and there have been many) to this one in London. I had been informed that in England if the show is a seated performance, the audience is not supposed to stand and dancing seems to be prohibited. As the colossal band invaded the stage the audience was thrust into an upheaval of cheers. But I found it fundamentally impossible to sit still while watching this decreed “party” band dish out one fabulous song after another.
Eventually I found myself standing by a balcony dancing with audience members from all walks of life. This is where I spent the remainder of the performance until the band finished their audience-demanded encores.
After spending the next several days compiling research on folk music and dodging the cold, blustery weather, I found myself on a train to lovely Bath for my second helping of Bellowhead.
The venue, The Bath Forum, was quite beautiful and as I was directed toward my seat I kept staring at my ticket knowing there was not way possible I could be seated this close to the stage. This never happens to me you see. I ended up in the third row.
I don’t know at what point it was during the show that Paul Sartin invited the audience to come up to the front and dance. Sitting there I watched a woman dance her way toward the stage followed by another. I turned to the woman sitting next to me and asked “Seriously?” and she shrugged her shoulders. So I jumped out of my chair and made my way toward the stage joining the dozens of other attendees hopping up and down and enjoying every minute.
Bellowhead had been known for offering “after show sessions”. These sessions would occur in a pub situated in close proximity to the venue. They were random, and I was fortunate to attend an after show session at a local Bath pub. Here several band members sang and played their instruments while inviting local musicians and those in attendance to join in. They have nothing as far as I know like this in the States let alone where I live. I spent most of that time just drinking it all in along with several pints. To me this far exceeded my expectations. And so ended my November journey but April was a mere five months away.
The month of April 2016 brought me two more shows. First up was in Sheffield at City Hall. What a stunning theatre I might add. My seats were situated in the Stalls. I wasn’t quite knowledgeable on what that actually implied but the end result were 7th row. Once again this was a seated show but midway through we were all on our feet dancing the best we could and singing at the top of our lungs.
This particular night there was an after show session. I believe it was a pretty new pub, which was quite small yet, open. The crowd poured in and was packed around the table vying for a chance to sing along and perform with members of the band. I quietly sang along reminding myself that I sang like a donkey according to one of my primary school teachers. I seized the opportunity to play the fiddle attempting to keep up with all of the established players. But I had just one regret. Well I really shouldn’t use that word because I don’t believe in the notion of feeling sadness over doing or not doing something. Rather if I had one do-over, I would have Morris danced. I have been studying that for several months now and wanted to reveal the skills I had learned. But I held back. Should’ve. Could’ve. Would’ve. And as quickly as the musicians arrived, the singing session came to a quiet end.
23rd April found me at the London Palladium for my final Bellowhead show. I vowed to enjoy every foot stomping, vocal shredding moment. I needed to savor every second, as this opportunity would never approach me again. And savor I did. The time seemed to rush by in a quick blur. And then, in a flash, it was gone. As the band departed the stage for the very last time, I realized I wasn’t sad at all but rather delighted. I was witness to something that touched so many lives and for that I was thankful.
On Meeting Members of the Band
At this point I need to digress for a moment. Having had worked in the music and radio industry for a number of years, I seldom found myself “star struck”. Let’s face it, all of our shit stinks no matter who we are. Perhaps I had grown jaded over the years, but I really think we are all equals with some of the fortunate getting paid for that which they are gifted and that which they love to do.
Conceivably this might be why I have no problem whatsoever talking to anyone. I am also not one to put false fronts. What you see is what you get. I’ve nothing to hide, and if you don’t like me then move along. So I have had no problems talking to the myriad of musicians, singers, and actors that I worked with over the years. Hell, I had no reservations speaking to the late Mother Teresa even though it was through an interpreter.
During both of my trips to England, I happened upon a couple of opportunities to actually meet a few members of Bellowhead. I am uncertain if they were simply putting on polite façades but they were very pleasant, funny and good-natured sports.
I’m sure the theme music to “Psycho” must have been playing in the back of their minds, but you would never know it. They were cordial and kind. And I hate to disappoint my readers they are just regular people.
As I was crossing the street I spotted Sam Sweeney and John Spiers. Being the geek that I am, I muttered some comment to the pair that I thought was humorous at the time. In hindsight, I realized I was just being a total imbecile. But I do believe I threw them a bit of a surprise when they discovered I had come from America to see them.
Now, I need to interject a quick story here. Ed Neuhauser and I had developed a Twitter rapport on the subject of beer. I told him that I was going to buy him a Budweiser if I should ever meet him. When I spotted him in a pub, I casually strolled over and asked if he’d ordered a Budweiser. The confused expression on his face was priceless. Then eventually he inquired, “Patty?” We shared a good laugh, beer and walked over to the venue. Ed is a genuine and kind guy. I will hold onto that memory for a very long, long time.
How is this for down to earth? While perusing the merchandise after a show, I saw Benji Kirkpatrick standing by the table. Being one that does not afford opportunities to slip past, I simply thanked him for such an entertaining evening. Once again the question about my being from the States was posed. I soon began to wonder if they thought I was some sort of nutcase. Benji, by the way, is a good salesman. I left with a copy of his CD and it has been in high rotation in my stereo ever since.
As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to attend an after show session in Bath. The band members in attendance who were not participating in playing or singing were just carrying on casual conversations with customers. See? Regular Joes.
A few pints in I discovered myself thanking Pete Flood for answering my 101 questions about various mushrooms indigenous to my area. When I said that he asked, “Are you Patty?” Seriously. How many people are following him and he actually recalled who I was.
I saw Benji there again and found myself talking politics with John. I wish I had more time to have a an all-out discussion because it was nice to be able to express my views on the state of America without fear of offending.
The few remaining members of the band saw me in all my somewhat drunken goofiness. And good sports they were. I convinced a guy to take photos of me with the band including one of the musicians that was playing with them all evening. I vividly recall saying “Dude you need to be in the picture too.” So to whoever that was, thank-you for joining in.
The one obstacle that blindsided me was meeting front man Jon. The first word that comes to mind is “intimidating”. He is such the powerhouse fiddle player. And for someone who is still learning her way around the instrument, I found myself so humbled. If one day I can be merely 1/16th the player Mr. Boden is, then I would call myself a success. So I found myself in unfamiliar territory where I could not form intelligible sounds or educated words. This was a first for me.
During my second trip in April it was like meeting up with old familiar friends. While attending the after show session in Sheffield it was time to play catch up. If memory serves me correct I spent quite a bit of money that night buying rounds of drinks. I consider it my “thank you gift” to the band for instituting my love for folk music.
I will be the first to admit, that I am far from a memorable person. I had a boss once who seldom remembered my name. So for these popular musicians to take a moment, recognize me and acknowledge that we had met meant the world to me.
John and I shared a beer. I caught up with Ed, Benji and Sam. And then there is Adam Dalton, the band’s merchandise manager extraordinaire. I first met him in November when he inquired where I was from since my accent was of a foreign nature I presume. We chatted only for a few moments. But damn if he didn’t recall meeting me when I saw him again in April. He, too, enjoyed a nice pint compliments of yours truly.
But once again I found myself struggling with Jon. The ability to speak logically evaded me. It has nothing to do with him as a person but rather the intimidation that overcomes me when I am around someone who I perceive as anything but my equal. And in all fairness to Jon, he seems to be a regular chap just like the rest of them but a little more serious in my opinion. Unfortunately I could not rise above my musical insecurities to discover that.
However, through the help of James Delarre from the fabulous band Mawkin (check them out as well), I was able to play Mr. Boden’s fiddle, albeit quite poorly, but nonetheless I played.
Perhaps one day I will be able to talk logically to all of these genuine nice guys. Perchance when the time arises for me to begin composing my book.
The evening of their final bow, I sat in the warm sands of Ed Walline Beach with the sun drenching my face. With a cold beer in hand, I raised a toast to a band for which I owe my gratitude for cultivating a love in me for folk music. A love that has led me down the path to so many novel ideas.
I think for me, the opportunity to spend a short amount of time with some of the band and the chance to see a few shows made their final curtain call sting a bit less. They certainly left a hole in the folk stage curtain and one day another artist will arrive to repair the hole and bring the folk world closer together again.
All 11 members are uniquely talented and there is no doubt they all have promising adventures on the horizon. So as the self-proclaimed musical connoisseur, I will listen to their projects with an open mind and a closed critical ear.
Here’s to you Bellowhead. Cheers!