Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Heretic Writes....

Bristol Old Vic
10 November

Bellowhead are quite good and a bit over the top, in the same way that the Pope is quite religious and a bit Catholic.

Their gig at the Bristol Old Vic sold out practically over night, and an extra one was hastily added, which also appears to have sold out. I get the impression that some fans went to both nights. Possibly in the future we will have to ration Bellowhead tickets, or have a ballot.

All the seating at the Old Vic was in place (last time, the management removed it) but that didn't stop the audience coming to their feet for the first encore ("this is a song about a prostitute") and if not exactly dancing, then at any rate enthusiastically pointing their fingers in the air to indicate that the protagonist was going up to the rigs, down to the jigs, and indeed up to the rigs of London town.

One wonders how much further over the top they can go. The trombonist is, for reasons best known to himself, wearing full clerical robes and a dog collar. The trumpeter keeps standing on his chair. The whole brass section pogo dance at every opportunity. John Spiers (squeeze box) and Sam Sweeny (fiddle and bagpipes) do that thing where they turn and face each other and start to couch down as they play faster and faster. Sam Sweeny wrote his name on my deluxe hard back version of the new CD. He looked about twelve.

Jon Boden is, well, Jon Boden. He finishes "Port of Amsterdam" with legs apart, arms uprasised, having an onstage emotional crisis like a crucified Freddy Mercury. He's wearing a strange sparkly jacket, and has taken to playing some of the percussion. Each time the the viborslap [I looked it up] goes "twang", he looks vaguely surprised.

They maintain their "supergroup" status admirably. For on (or for all I know, several) nights James Fagan (as in "Nancy Kerr and") was at the front with John and Jon. He got to play the banjo in "Cholera Camp". But there's a nagging fear that this has ceased to be about folk music and become about Bellowhead gig. They started out, what, six years ago doing high octane orchestrations of material like Prickly Bush, Slo Gin Set, Haul Away, Horn Fair -- songs that Spiers and Boden had performed to death as a duo. Now they are a fully fledged Phenomenon, the Songs are starting to get lost in the Performance. And the Performance is still wonderful. "Little Sally Racket" is a harmless sea-shanty -- hardly even that, a pub song on the level of Frigging in the Rigging. Jon Boden starts to channel John Lydon screaming the lyrics ("Little Sally Racket / Pawned my best jacket / And the lost the ticket") at the audience so you can't actually hear them -- but then coming to the front of the stage with the other singers and sweetly singing the verse about little Kitty Carson (who ran of with a parson) in close harmony akapella -- if they'd momentary turned back into the Copper Family. It hardly matters if this destroys the song: there wasn't much song there in the first place. But I'm still uneasy about the 1980s ska [check this] brass stings completely taking over "The Two Magicians", which, in the hands of Martin Carthy or Bob Fox, a good story with a good tune. I really felt that they could have been singing anything. The narrative of the "Broomfield Wood" survives the treatment; "The Weaver and the Factory Maid" gets lost completely. Which is why, I guess, they are at their best having a great time in inconsequential shanties and drinking songs. Away you, Santy, my dear honey, oh you New York girls, can't you dance the poker? And why not?

Nothing on their albums or their TV appearances remotely captures just how extreme their stage act as become. Spiers and Boden remain my favourite stage act and I would unhesitatingly drag anyone who thought they didn't like folk music to the Old Vic the next time they pass through Banksyville. If Thursday night hadn't already sold out, I'd have been very tempted to go twice in one week. But I couldn't help thinking of myself crying into my beer during Martin Simpson's Dylan impersonation or being swept away to Otherworlds by Robin Williamson, and wondering is this is really what English folk music is meant to be about. Oh, every got to their feet and jumped in the air in the final final encore of "Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth"; I jumped up and down as well. But my heart wasn't in it. What was it Mr Wordsworth said?

"....and from the rubble gathered up a stone
And pocketed the relic in the guise
Of an enthusiasts, yet in very truth
I looked for something that I could not find
Affecting more emotion than I felt..."

A word, by the way, for Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, the support act. I heard some people being quite rude about them in the interval. There were a couple of glitches in their performances -- untuned violins and forgotten words and what not. I've never seen an act where this kind of thing didn't happen: but your Steve Tilstons and your Martin Simpsons are confident enough to say "I'm singing that bit again cos I cocked it up." These two were obviously nervous, as might be expected when they are, er, opening for the biggest names in folk, and kept drawing attention to their fairly minor mistakes. ("Our CD is on sale. It costs £5. But there are only six tracks, so it's not a bargain or anything.") But this in no way detracted from the act, which was a mixture of innocent, delicate reworkings of traddy material (a haunting, agonizing "Hares on the Mountain", an American variant of "I wish, I wish") and some quirky stuff they'd written themselves. And it was an inspired pairing. Bellowhead are, as I may have mentioned, a little over the top. Jonny and Lucy are so understated that they practically not there at all....

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