Thursday, December 01, 2011

Not As Good As Bellowhead

Blackbeard's Tea Party
The Croft, Bristol
26 Nov 2011

Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead.

On the other hand, Bellowhead do not play in the back rooms of pubs at the bottom of my street (while young people play speedcore in the front bar). Although, come to think of it, I did hear Mr Spiers and Mr Boden perform on this very stage back in 2007. And Mr Carthy. Still, it's the least folkie venue ever. All the young people were in black. I was in my floral waistcoat. The pub was smashed up during the pretend riots last July. I think they thought I was a hippy bouncer.

As I was saying: Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead. But they generate an energy, a physicality, a sense of musical theatre (completely improvised, I think) and a spontaneous response from the audience which I have never seen any folk band apart from Bellowhead come within a hundred miles of.

They do, in pretty much every conceivable respect, rock.

They came onto the stage at 9.40, after the usual local support who we will tactfully pass over. Stu the singer – not the singer on the albums, a new singer who has joined the band in the last month --  asks if there are any miners in the audience. Someone is related to one. He launches into "I can hew" . ("And when I die boys know full well / I’m not bound for heaven, I am bound for hell / My pick and shovel Old Nick he will admire / and he’ll setting be hewing coal for his hell-fire”). There is a thumping drumbeat and  an electric guitar which, I shouldn’t wonder goes up to 11. And Stu, I swear, doesn't stop moving for the rest of the evening. He encourages the audience to pogo dance by leaping three feet off the ground. He gesticulates in the narrative bits. He nips back stage at one point and re-emerges in sun glasses and pink tie-dye shirt. The whole band follows him into the physical space. Yom Hardy the cajun drummer bangs his head in time with the rhythm so his long black hair flaps up and down like a muppet. When Martin Coumbe the guitarist does a solo, the band get down on their knees to worship him.

The sound mix, I have to say, is perfect: too often in this kind of thing I have said "I believe that there may have been a folk song going on somewhere, but all I could hear was the drum". Tonight you could hear every one of Stu's words. The songs are stories or jokes played with a camp twinkle in his eye. Folk rock with the emphasis firmly on the folk.

Oh, and there was rappa dancing. In a pub. At the bottom of my street.

I now need to tread carefully. One of the many excellences about the Tea Party's first E.P (Heavens To Betsy) was the nuanced vocals of Paul Young. Young credits his Barrack Street (version # 94 of the story about the sailor being robbed by the prostitute) to the singing of Nic Jones, and it was a close match in vocal style. If you are going to swipe, swipe from the best, said I. Paul Young appears on the new album and he remains excellent. The album version of Stan Rogers Barrat's Privateers (sadly not in the live set) is quite stunning. He tones down the "roar" from the original recording, plays it as a ballad, not a shanty, tells the story, while the group weave in and out and all round the tune, even interjecting hornpipes a couple of times. But I note that Paul claims to have learned two of the lighter and more raucous pieces on the album from Stuart and there is a perhaps a sense that Paul isn’t fully comfortable with them. Not as loud and mad as Stuart is on stage at any rate. But that may just be me being wise after the event.

Landlord Fill the Flowing Glass is a venerable English drinking song with lyrics that get progressively filthier in each stanza.“I wish I had another brick to build my chimney higher /Stop the neighbours pussy cat from pissing in the fire”. It’s quite lovely how Blackbeard’s Tea Party stay close to the basic beauty of the melody and then put the heavy stuff behind it without the one swamping out the other. Too often this kind of thing is done with a nod and a wink; isn’t it funny that we’re singing “thee” and “thou” while the electric guitar is drowning us out? But this just seemed to just be a song. The drunken Landlord is followed by the endlessly sobering Chicken On Raft, possibly my favourite song about egg on toast. ("I sing "woo-woo" and you sing "chicken on a raft": and then I sing "aaa-aa" and you sing "chicken on a raft" and then I sing "woo-woo" and you sing...")

I never saw the original line up live and it may be that their stage act was always this extreme. It may be that audiences in York are holding placards saying "Bring back Paul". When I first heard the album I said that their musical arrangements were reminiscent of Mawkin and it strikes me that Stuart’s manner is not a million miles away from Jim Causley. (Actually he's like the the bastard offspring of Jim Causley and Jon Boden.)

I wish Paul Young all the best; I hope he left to pursue a brilliant solo career and not (say) because of a quarrel about who took the last slice of cheesecake. And it would be reckless to start saying "gig of the year" in a year which has included Alisdair Roberts and Show of Hands. And that old American man who sings Bob Dylan songs. But it looks to me that the addition of Stuart has propelled a band I was already very excited about into orbit.  

That's not a metaphor. He really does jump that high.

Blackbeard's Tea Party. Not as good as Bellowhead. Yet.