Saturday 10 April 2021

Hedonism/ Bellowhead (2010): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

 ...happier times before this pandemic. Times when we weren't faced with restrictions and would think nothing of travelling across the country or being part of a crowd of people. Some of the most joyous pre-Covid moments were seeing live music, something I never did enough of as a youngster and sought to rectify some years ago. I guess part of why I didn't see as much live music in my 20s was due to my taste being more R n B based and not having the means to see the artists I loved live. As my interests broadened, my desire to seek out live music grew.

Seeing Bellowhead at Wickham Festival in 2014 and then in Poole in 2015 gives me a yearning to return to life where these sorts of opportunities were taken for granted. Wickham, where they headlined, was marvellous-- there's something about being in amongst a crowd of middle-aged folkies that feels like home! There's a real connection with the music and a lack of inhibition that emanates from such crowds. In contrast, the gig at Poole's Lighthouse was a sit down affair, but despite the enforced seating, the crowd were up on their feet before long, leaping and frolicking, shaking the living daylights out of the rather flimsy auditorium seating.

I tried to remember the exact moment of finding Bellowhead's music, as it wasn't much earlier than 2014 (10 years after they formed), but I couldn't seem to recall it. What I do know is that this 11 piece folk supergroup have had a lasting effect on me. They make me smile more, run faster and love the genre more deeply. What this group of multi-talented musicians have managed to achieve in terms of re-imagining traditional folk tunes and bringing them to a modern generation is beyond impressive. If you've not listened to the album, Hedonism, it is a good place to start (as is Broadside) I challenge anyone to listen to 'New York Girls' (this album's first track) and not (at the very least) tap their feet.. 

This was the first of Bellowhead's albums that I discovered and for that reason it is special to me. The first three tracks are a jump headfirst into upbeat, fun folk. Jon Boden, the lead singer and fiddle player, has such a warm, agile folk voice. Boden effortlessly adds humour, character and stage presence in shed loads to the group. When you then combine the energy and chemistry between the band members, you have something very powerful, emotionally stirring even.

There's some pleasing diversity of tone in this album. After an uptempo and fun-fuelled opening, once you hit track six, 'Captain Wedderburn' brings some contrast. This is a personal favourite of mine. As a lover of literary traditions, it has a dark appeal within its narrative. The lyrics are taken from a Scottish ballad dating from the 1780s and they focus on a courtship in which a suitor is challenged to solve riddles so that he can marry a young maiden. The whole song builds to a powerful climax in which Captain Wedderburn correctly answers the maiden's riddles (including: 'what is worse than a woman's voice?' Answer: the Devil!) The darkness of 'we'll both lie in one bed, and you'll lie next to the wall' makes this a rather foreboding song to listen to and the arrangement with Rachel McShane's harmonising with Boden is very melancholic. Despite the lyric 'they're the happiest pair of all', there's the suggestion of the claw of the patriarchy in the tone of the arrangement-- very sinister indeed. I love this kind of subtlety in modern re-telling that Bellowhead do so well.

On 'Cold Blows the Wind' we get some more dark lyrics, but what is exhibited on this track is the amazing brass section: Ed Neuhauser on tuba, Brendan Kelly on sax, Justin Thurgur on trombone and Andy Mellon on trumpet. These guys don't only play, but they move

On 'Parson's Farewell', an instrumental, Paul Sartin on the oboe, Sam Sweeney and Boden on the fiddle and Benji Kirkpatrick on the mandolin bring life to this already upbeat traditional dance tune. Watching John Spiers on the melodeon shows him in his element, especially in this track live.

It would also be remiss not to mention Pete Flood, Bellowhead's drummer. He is the heart of the band and elevates the music to have an underscore of rock. Listen to his playing on 'Little Sally Racket', for example.

Hedonism is just that: music to get swept away by. I truly believe Bellowhead need to be seen live to be fully appreciated and I feel privileged that I have been able to do that. It brings a tear to my eye to read about the effect of the pandemic on musicians in the UK. In Summer 2020, they posted the video below of them performing 'New York Girls' during lockdown from their respective homes; in December 2020 they did a one off reunion gig by live stream (which was incredible, despite fan favourite, Andy Mellon not being able to make it.) Since then, Pete Flood has retired from music and other members, including John Spiers have been vocal online about how gigging musicians have been castrated by Brexit, unable to tour in the EU without significant cost. Who knows what the future holds for the industry, but it will be up to fans to get behind the acts that they enjoy in whatever form that will be.

Hedonism came out at a mid point in Bellowhead's career and represents the joy and power of folk music. To have so many consistent members and each and every time look like they're having an absolute ball performing together is no mean feat. Bellowhead will always be the folk supergroup for the modern generation.

1. New York Girls-- always jig-worthy
2. Broomfield Hill-- folk storytelling and majesty
3. Captain Wedderburn-- Rachel McShane and Jon Boden's harmonies on this track are glorious

... I want to feel energised. Did you know that Bellowhead make the perfect running companion?

'You'll have to be up early to be smarter than a whore!   ('New York Girls')

... black flecked red. The 2020 release vinyl is this colour so it didn't require much imagination, but it is perfectly suited. As aforementioned, this is a razzmatazz of fun folk and dark traditional ballads with a modern twist.

'Hotter Than July'/Stevie Wonder (1980)

What is your favourite album beginning with H?

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