Live Reviews

Bellowhead – Portsmouth Guildhall: Live Review

Bellowhead – Portsmouth Guildhall – 10th November 2022

Britain’s favourite Folkestra made their welcome return to live performance last week. We were there!

It’s been a long time – 2,384 days, in fact – since Bellowhead last trod the boards in front of a live audience but, when the eleven-strong ensemble hit the stage at Portsmouth’s Guildhall on the evening of Thursday 10th November, it really did feel like Britain’s favourite Folkestra had never been away. Of course, the festive spirit of the Bellowhead revival was dampened considerably by the recent loss of fiddler/oboist Paul Sartin (more of which later) but, make no mistake, Bellowhead were back – and they were on fire! The Portsmouth date was the first of a 16-date Bellowhead tour, scheduled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Broadside, the band’s awesome 2012 follow-up to their 2010 breakthrough album, Hedonism.

The stage set – an endearing blend of the deck of a galleon and the saloon bar of a dockside boozer – was a perfect fit for a city with the nautical history and imagery of Portsmouth and we all knew, as we entered the Guildhall, that tonight was going to be very special indeed.

I’ve always been fascinated by Portsmouth Guildhall. The concert hall is shabbily impressive – small enough to allow audiences to feel up close and intimate with whoever it is that they’ve come to see, and the sound is good. And WHAT a musical history the place has got – you name an act and it’s pretty certain that they’ll have played there: Pink Floyd – yep! David Bowie – of course! The Jam – regularly! Elton John, The Clash, Elvis Costello, U2 – the list is endless. The Guildhall legend is alive and well – and that legend grew a little bigger on Thursday night as Bellowhead drained our emotions and energies! And the really nice thing about Portsmouth Guildhall is that it was designed by Leeds architect William Hill and it’s an almost identical replica of his other masterpiece – At The Barrier’s own Bolton Town Hall…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Before Bellowhead was summoned to the stage, we were to be treated to a wonderful set from Sam Sweeney, the band’s fiddler and sometime bagpipe practitioner. Backed by Jack Rutter on acoustic guitar, Louis Campbell on electric guitar and Ben Nicholls on double bass, Sam gave us a whistle-stop tour of his excellent new album, Escape That (out now on CD, LP and digital formats on Hudson Records). And – you know what? – the Victor Kiam in me enjoyed the tunes so much, I bought the album! It’s a delightful blend of traditional Celtic-flavoured folk with lashings of jazz mixed in for good measure, and I heartily recommend that anyone with a liking for that kind of thing (pretty well all of us in the ATB team, that’s for sure…) gives it a listen.

Sam kicked off with Ruby, the album’s opening track and I was immediately impressed by the richness and solidity of the music. Want To Fly Want To Flee was next – a skittish Irish-flavoured tune that builds nicely. Ben’s bass reverberated around the room and I found myself comparing the band’s sound to that of a mini Moving Hearts.

Sam wrote the jiggy Nightshifting whilst working in a Slough factory during lockdown. It’s quite an earworm with its strong Celtic theme spiced up with just the right amount of jazzy seasoning. Deep Water Shallow (End) is bright and sparkly with some great contributions from Jack’s choppy acoustic guitar and Louis’s soaring electric solo. A truly transportational tune – it was easy to imagine that we weren’t in Portsmouth at all, we were drifting amongst the rainclouds, above the Celtic hills of Scotland and Ireland, with blissful smiles on our faces.

Sam concluded his short set (and remember, he had to leave himself with enough time to shower and change before remounting the stage for an energy-sapping spot with Bellowhead…) with Pink Steps, a tune that came into Sam’s head whilst sleeping on a tour bus outside The Beacon concert hall in Bristol. Sam freely admits that he isn’t normally prone to nocturnal visitations but he’ll certainly be glad to have had this one. It’s another sprightly tune that gets ever more exciting as it progresses. Louis’s and Jack’s guitars were frantic and Sam’s fiddle was wildly exploratory, without ever getting out of control. Regardless of what happens next for Bellowhead, Sam Sweeney is a name to watch out for and Escape That is a must-listen album!

Bellowhead’s last appearance in front of an audience was way back in May 2016 and, at the time, I suppose that we were all pretty well convinced that that would be the last we’d see of this most engagingly dramatic of bands. We all appreciate that the expense and logistics of keeping an 11-piece mini-orchestra on the road must be quite a challenge, so we were overjoyed when it was announced that Bellowhead would be re-forming for one-off streamed concert in December 2020 to mark the 10th anniversary of Hedonism. That show, streamed on 5th December 2020, was a fine event – enshrined on the live album, Reassembled (now reissued on limited edition yellow vinyl to promote the current tour) – and it was, indeed, wonderful to see Bellowhead back together again. However, fine event it maybe was, but it wasn’t Bellowhead in the flesh. Tonight was different – they were really here, and the expectancy was palpable.

They hit the ground running, and the pace never let up. The bulk of the show’s material was to be taken from the Broadside album and, right from the opening chords of Byker Hill, one thing was clear. Bellowhead are as exciting now as they’ve always been. Clad in a pink jacket/ black shirt ensemble, frontman Jon Boden greeted us with “Good evening Portsmouth! This is our first gig in, like, a million years!” and we were well and truly up and away. 10,000 Miles Away was full of pomp, glam and seafaring spirit. Benji Kirkpatrick, in shorts, was everywhere – and, as the evening wore on, I don’t believe that he ever played the same instrument for two songs in succession – and John Spiers was, as ever, a dependable anchor to the voyages of exploration going on everywhere else.

Sam Sweeney, fresh from his revitalising bath and dressed now in a glittery shirt, led the way on Jack Lintel, his manic fiddle instrumental from 2014’s Revival album, before the band returned once again to Broadside for a sublime Betsy Baker. Jon B made maximum use of the stage props as he climbed to the highest point to deliver an assured vocal. This was Bellowhead at their orchestral, folky, slightly psychedelic best!

I first came across the folk standard, Old Dun Cow, the hilarious tale of the fire brigade’s antics when they attended a conflagration at the local alehouse, when it was performed on a BBC TV Special by The Spinners, sometime in the early 1970s. It’s fair to say that Bellowhead’s version of the song is rather better – suitably incendiary and the bass notes from Ed Neuhauser’s sousaphone never fail to send those shivers down my spine. The Wife of Usher’s Well was as dramatic as always, and the four-part vocal harmonies were simply stunning, before we were returned, once again to the Revival album and a wonderful version of Fine Sally, complete with a new verse in which the song’s subject stages a full recovery and reports fiendish, fraudulent doctor to the BMA!

By far the most poignant and memorable part of the evening was the tribute to the band’s recently deceased multi-instrumentalist Paul Sartin. Benji Kirkpatrick – also a bandmate of Paul’s in their Faustus project – made the introduction, as Paul’s recorded voice emerged from the PA for an unaccompanied first verse of Brisk Lad. The band joined in with a heart-rending six-part harmony and provided a thoroughly respectful instrumental backing, as a simple backdrop message: “Paul Sartin 1971-2022” replaced the colourful Bellowhead logo for the duration of the song. It was the evening’s true highlight and the song – and Paul’s memory – duly received a deserved standing ovation.

And I think that Paul’s memory was equally well-served as the band continued with the medley of morris tunes, led by Benji, that followed the solemn tribute. Rest in Peace, Paul – you’ll never be forgotten.

Taken from the Copper Family’s collection, Thousands Or More is a rousing chorus song that Jon B delivered in a vagabond-like voice. He also plugged in an electric guitar for a wonderfully flute-like solo, as the band burst into an irresistible waltz.

We enjoyed a set of dance tunes featuring Jon B on triangle and some divine oboe from Sally Hawkins (who coped admirably with the unenviable task of filling Paul Sartin’s role) before we got back to Broadside business with a manic Black Beetle Pies. Jon delivered his vocal through a megaphone, drummer Pete Flood stepped forward to give us a frantic xylophone solo and Rachael McShane played along on a small blue glockenspiel. “How insane is THAT?!?” said the astounded lady behind me.

A trip back to Revival was next on the list – first for Let Union Be (“It’s not about politics – it’s about togetherness,” said Jon. And so say all of us!) John Spiers’ melodeon was majestic, as were the strings and the brass. There’s nothing that bellows quite like Bellowhead! And I’ve always loved Rosemary Lane, Bellowhead’s take on Scarborough Fair – it’s a lot rockier than anything that either Martin Carthy or Paul Simon ever imagined, but it’s equally respectful – in that special brassy Bellowhead kind of way.

Portsmouth + Bellowhead + a sea shanty = delirium – and so it proved tonight. As the band burst into Haul Away, the city’s landlubbers were up their feet and swaying along and, for a lesser band than Bellowhead, that would have been a difficult one to follow but, when there are songs like Lillibulero on the setlist, it really isn’t a problem, let alone when Roll Alabama is the next one up, and Jon Boden is minded to leap like a deranged springbok around every little bit of the elaborate stage.

The excitement had reached fever pitch by now and I reckon that every single person in the hall was up, swaying and clapping along to the Sloe Gin Set – John Spiers’ infectious collection of dance tunes. Young and old alike were a-leaping and a-hopping along and I hadn’t seen anything like it at an indoor concert for many a long month. We were getting close to the end, but we all knew that there are some tunes that Bellowhead aren’t allowed NOT to play… London Town, from their debut Burlesque album, for example. We all know the actions but, just in case anyone may have forgotten them during that long hiatus, Rachael and Sam ascended the upper levels to remind us.

There was still time for another and it was – what else – New York Girls! We sang heartily along and, when the band bid their farewells, we were rewarded with more. So – what had they missed so far? That’s it – Roll The Woodpile Down!!! And that, sadly was it. What a night. What a band. Bellowhead have been very clear that the current tour is a one-off event and there’s no commitment been given to any further appearances. It would be a huge shame if the Bellowhead circus was allowed to die after this tour. But I can’t really see that happening. Can you??

This really is a tour that you miss at your peril. Many of the shows are now sold out but, if you haven’t booked your seats yet, and you feel a last-minute urge to pop along to what might just be the show of your life, then you can check the itinerary here. But hurry up, these hot cakes are selling fast!

Keep an eye out for our end-of-tour coverage as the Bellowhead ship rolls around the North West , concluding in Manchester on 28th November.

Bellowhead online: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter/ YouTube

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