Like most, we here at Londonist had fallen into the trap of assuming that folk music is about cable knit jumpers and living in a caravan. Talk of the English folk dance tradition makes us think of hankies and sticks and bells and so on. However, Bellowhead play folk music, but not as we know it. The 11 piece band belted out tune after tune, the sound made by the fiddles, cello, squeezeboxes, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, bagpipe, bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, percussion and various voices left the audience with no choice but to dance. Bellowhead won best live act at the 2005 Radio 2 Folk Awards and we can see why.
Although this was an album launch for their first full length album, 'Burlesque', they also played some great tracks from their first EP, 'E.p.onymous', such as ‘Jack Robinson’ and ‘Prickle-Eye Bush’. The highlight track of the whole night was tuba driven ‘Fire Marengo’, a song introduced as a “disco sea shanty… we got this one from the penguin book of disco sea shanties.”
The evening had a Victoriana theme and the band (along with much of the audience) appeared in full Victorian garb. On guitar/bouzouki and mandolin Benji Kirkpatrick broke strings left right and centre and the percussionist, who can only be described as a nutter, dropped a coal scuttle of cutlery onto his drum kit. Rock and roll.
While being unusual it didn’t suffer from being gimmicky in any way, they simply don’t need to be, such is their musicianship. The band peddle innovation rather than novelty. Although they are definately in the folk camp, they borrow from the likes of jazz and salsa, especially regarding percussion, and it works. The reason that these folk songs are still being sung is that they are cracking tunes, and with the relentlessly imaginative treatment they are given by the band, they stand up to anything written today.
Other highlights include the venue, the lovely Bush hall, the 'embarrassing drunken uncle' mode of dancing adopted by all, the close up magic between the two sets and the fact that Frank Skinner was in the audience. We hate to write such an unblemished and sycophantic review, but they really were that good. Honest.
Bellowhead's debut album, 'Burlesque' is out on Westpark Music now. Their myspace page, featuring four tracks, is here.