“Come my lads, let us be jolly, Drive away all melancholy.”
What more suitable clarion call as we reconnect with Bellowhead on the final lap of the 2022 (dare we say ‘reunion’ ) tour – Harrogate, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester see us dancing our own polka as we crisscross the Pennines.
As we settle down to look back over Bellowhead’s November 2022 tour – cue the wibbly wobbly lines of time travel -the first stop is at the events of 2016. 1st May 2016 at Oxford Town Hall to be precise, on the ‘That’s All Folks!’ tour. And so it turns out that…that wasn’t, exactly, all folks.
We’ve had the Reassembled lockdown return – ‘for one night only’ – where we inevitably mused about the inevitable question of a full-time comeback that all the fans would be hoping might follow this one-off event. We tabled the notion of an ‘oh go on then, just once more’ tour. Would the pleas from the fans ever be satisfied? Would Bellowhead skate on the frozen wastes of Hell? Or was it a case of meeting halfway with an occasional scratching of the itch? That itch seemed to be the tenth anniversary of the iconic Broadside album – the record that contains many of the stage barnstormers – and an itch that proves simply irresistible.
We’d been encouraged to grab our tickets for this tour as the word is that there will be no performances in 2023. Are we going to see Bellowhead reappear some way distant in the future then? They haven’t said “That REALLY is all folks!” – perhaps a lesson learned – so chances are that Broadside10 won’t be ‘it’.
A tweaking of the lineup has taken place – Jim Bulger has stepped into the brass section on trumpet (more about him later) and team strings are now joined by Sally Hawkins which is a positive shift in the gender balance in the band.
After dipping our toes into the tour for the opening show at Portsmouth Guildhall, quite appropriate considering the nautical nature of Broadside and its anniversary, we caught the final run of shows in the North. Will the magnificent eleven be all worn out; broken after a punishing schedule or ready to party for a few more times and end the year with a bang.
Harrogate Convention Centre
So – to visions of Eighties Eurovision when Harrogate hosted the world. Tonight Matthew, for the first time since the Bellowhead Farewell Tour almost to the day (Monday 23rd November 2015 according to the archive) when our heroes were accompanied by Keston Cobblers Club, we’re back in North Yorkshire and trying not to think we’re at a convention.
The touring party has had a rare day off so hopefully are champing at the bit for another shot of the adrenalin that comes with their incendiary live shows. But first is a much-anticipated chance to catch Sam Sweeney and his band – Jack Rutter, Ben Nicholls and the phenomenal Louis Campbell – playing music from the Escape That album that we rated so highly. It’s beautifully played too, and the thought of four nights of this aperitif before the main course means we can sit back and simply enjoy a choice selection before trying to make some more astute observations.
However, the first thing we note is how good it is to see an animated Jack Rutter again, really getting off on playing this music. Of late, he’s been playing and singing solo, and needing the concentration to do both is quite an ask. Tonight he’s ‘free’ again and swinging his axe – a lovely big Gibson acoustic – in joyous abandon like he used to do when he played with Seth Lakeman. What’s also apparent too is the grace of the tunes, particularly Pink Steps which starts with just Louis and Sam and before you know it, has swelled into a huge sound swirling around the Convention Centre rafters. No encore, but three more nights worth to come – can’t complain.
Bellowhead have gone all out. The production is simply a visual delight. Seafaring ephemera litters the stage – barrels, decanters and ‘wooden’ decking platforms while Benji Kirkpatrick has entered into the spirit by dressing as a cabin boy with a stripey shirt and cut off jeans. There’s also a mighty backdrop that declares ‘BELLOWHEAD’, should we need a reminder. The set recalls the multicoloured stage blocks modelled on the Pandemonium/Essential Bellowhead album packaging and where there’s sure to be some frolicking and galivanting going on.
The effect of the return of Bellowhead is like getting reacquainted with an old friend. One that’s happening in eighteen towns and cities around the nation. A subdued opening, the band in shadows as Byker Hill hoves into view and the set is clearly paced to allow for a build until any inhibitions can be cast aside and we’re back on familiar ground, Jon Boden is acknowledging that it’s time to get off your seats with a “Yeeessss Harrogate!” (or location of the evening) until suddenly it’s like no time has passed at all and we’re all dancing the polka together. In Harrogate, a small group fo devotees are inspired enough by Let Union Be to be on their feet and they’re not going to sit down, slowly joined by a growing throng that almost rushed the front of the stage. “Yeeessss Harrogate!” indeed!
The familiar traits and tropes slowly appear as the set builds. There’s a happy sway to 10,000 Miles Away and Jack Lintel with massed fiddles adds to the nautical flavour. Contrast that jollity with the drama of the ghostly tale of The Wife Of Usher’s Well, lit with shadows and silhouettes while ghostly squeaks and squeals come from the brass side of the stage and it isn’t too long before we see Mr Boden on what Andy Bell calls ‘the ego platform’ conducting proceedings with arms aloft. The pink jacket is back along with a sequinned variant and it’s hard to believe that this is the same man who decided a few years back that he opted to stand down from doing this. Getting away from what Peter Gabriel in Solsbury Hill called ‘the machinery’.
The boldness and the swell of The March Past that follows the tribute to Paul Sartin in Brisk Lad, is the sign that the ante is being cranked up and following Lillibulero, the point in Haul Away as the opening tune slows, Jon Boden begins the call and the band thunder in as the main lyric begins, sees chaos reign. Wild abandon, the rush of adrenalin as performers and audience frollick away for all they’re worth. The stage becomes a playground and not for the first or only time on the tour, Sam Sweeney is off into the audience, risking having his green sequinned jacket torn from him by an overzealous fan!
The ‘hits’ then flow, the dancing shoes are fully engaged and it’s Sam again, backlit on an ego riser, sawing out the intro to Roll The Woodpile Down as the audience go way done to Florida before a mighty set of dance tunes – “they’re dance tunes so you know what that means…” John Spiers has already reminded us – brings things to a rip-roaring, joyful conclusion.
For many – like us – there are still three gigs to go and for those who’ve been part of the Bellowhead return so far, there’s no doubt that absence has made the heart grow fonder. I think we’ve all realised what we’ve missed. The extravaganza remains the same.
Liverpool – The Philharmonic Hall
Escape That! – again. A set that going to be amongst our albums of the year for sure. And repeating viewings offer a chance to pick up on some nuances of the Sweeney Band. We’ve mentioned Jack Tutter, but also flanked by Louis Campbell and Ben Nicholls, it’s a band of youth and experience. Having seen Louis at the English Folk Expo in October, we can vouch for his remarkable talent. On electric guitar and assorted pedal board effects, he adds an interesting dimension to the sonic palette. Ben on the other hand is the go-to double bass man with his trusty instrument that does the same for the sonic depth. No wonder Sam describes them as the best band he’s played with “don’t tell them,” he says indicating the huge Bellowhead backdrop.
We take note of some of the stories behind the tunes- evolving on tour buses or travelodges – while making a note of the fashion statements being made onstage. Sam’s colourful “mid-nineties, Neil Buchanan Art Attack” reference point is one to which many of us can relate!
A word on the tribute to Paul Sartin. Thinking back to Oxford 2016 he was the final band member to leave the stage. He stopped, turned and took one last farewell look at the Bellowhead crowd. This tour is as much for him as anyone. Sally Hawkins covers his parts wonderfully well, and the band pays respect to his memory in a stately manner that befits his legacy as a musician and as a friend. Introduced by his Faustus buddy Benji, the recording of his voice singing Brisk Lad is subtly enhanced by some vocal, string and guitar parts from the live musicians and at the conclusion, the standing ovations are touching. How do you follow that? You can’t. The soft rumble from the brass boys allows The March Past to lift us from the reverie into the now, into a wake of sorts and for a brief moment, we can imagine Paul himself up on one of the platforms, giving his all to the uplifting tune. Maybe even stripping off a sparkly waistcoat, waving it round his head in a true Night Fever!
It might just be because we’re in the home of The Beatles, but a couple of Beatle-y moments pop into the consciousness tonight. The ‘pink mini guitar with shades’ interlude in Thousands Or More this evening seems to be less Hank Marvin and more George Harrison while the ‘oooh’s and ‘aaah’s in the backing vocal parts in Betsy Baker seem similarly Beatle-y.
However, it’s the “ Yeeessss Liverpool!” moment that tonight comes in Rosemary Lane when the calypso swing and strings combined with the punky shouts of “every rose grows merry and fine” as Jon and Sam go glittery head to head on the stage right and left risers that has the multitude on their feet. Talking of which, the core may be folk, but the range of genres that make their way in and out of the arrangements of the songs is quite remarkable. Fine Sally swings with a disco funk – the sequinned Team Strings bang at home; The Old Dun Cow has its own jazzy funk section and tricky time signatures, Benji Kirkpatrick always on hand to step on the pedals to add a bit of wah-wah to the bouzouki while there’s a display of music hall theatricality to Betsy Baker early in the set and a lovely Last Of The Summer Wine brass richness to Fakenham Fair.
As Roll Alabama pulls on the local connection – the ship sailing down the Mersey channel – it’s a very feel-at-home moment in the grand confines of the Phil and sets up the final where a shedload of the band gathers around Pete Flood’s drum kit for some shenanigans at the start of the Sloe Gin set. One that Squeezy John reminds us has been almost a stalwart of the Bellowhead set since day one, even though we’re in latter period BH for the bulk of the tour. The morris dance variations – morris meets disco maybe – along with some Sweeney ‘one leg dancing’ options that tests Rachael McShane in trying to keep up, encourage all and sundry to lose their inhibitions and basically jump about, while saving some energy from the ultimate pogo-ing finale that comes in Frogs Legs & Dragons Teeth and the bow.
Sheffield City Hall
Two shows done, two to go. Sheffield City Hall and the gorgeousness of the main Oval Hall and its ornate ceiling. Noted by Brendan as he muses over some of the smart rooms they’ve played. It’s also relatively compact as the two balconies sit one above the other so from the stage there’s almost a vertical walk of audience to look out on. Great when we get to the point of no return which tonight sees most of the house on their feet, arms aloft as Haul Away rattles and rolls gloriously. (the “Yeeessss Sheffield!” moment).
A sort of hometown gig of sorts too, as the Hudson Records team is in the house and Mr Boden is one of the Sheffield Massiv and they’re the recipients of another Sweeney dash around the auditorium before returning to the stage with a bump and a drag, no notes missed either so far as we could tell.
A word about the setlist which is naturally weighted towards the tenth anniversary of Broadside of which three quarters is played – a shame we don’t get Dockside Rant which has always been a personal favourite tune, not a moan, as Jack Lintel does a similar job.
With just one show left, what strikes at this point is how the two new members are totally at home – replacing the irrepressible Andy Mellon on trumpet is the similarly irrepressible Jim Bulger (turns out like Sally Hawkins has Manchester connections – good choices clearly). ‘Irrepressible ‘ must be on the job spec. Presumably, he had to prove his worth at the audition by jumping up and down a lot, making audience participation shapes and generally gallivanting, all while playing his brass parts. For that’s exactly what he did throughout the four shows we saw, and presumably the others too. Not that we’re counting but a man of the match/mentioned in dispatches performance from Jim. Squeezy John tonight seems to be in a playful mood, adding some deep vocalisms to Lilibulero. Some might even say Death Metal growls of the song title. He’s even spotted miming some air guitar (or mandolin/bouzouki) in New York Girls.
As ever, the journey that begins with a sedate musical gathering ends in unbridled liberation, riotous jubilation, uncontestable affirmation and more evidence that this train must surely be allowed to roll on.
Eliza Carthy was playing Greystones in Sheffield on the same night. “If Sheffield is rocking,” she tweeted, “that means the folk apocalypse came knocking.” Spot on! Creating a fervour as hot as one of the furnaces in the steel city.
Manchester, The Bridgewater Hall.
Scene of one of their own Tenth anniversary shows and a chance to fiddle with the Bel10whead typography. And the scene too of the final date of the tour. Must be something special about Manchester…
Another watch of Sam and his band playing their Escape That! tunes, buoyed by the prospect of more solo dates next year when we can appreciate his full catalogue. Sadly it may be without Jack Rutter who has his own solo career blossoming. Tonight we watch Louis in particular, observing him hunched over his guitar in a Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead…) stance that’s focused purely on creating those sound textures that give Escape That! much of its originality. The take up on the Escape That! jumper challenge may have been underwhelming, but surely playing the music from an album that (spoiler alert!) will feature in our own ‘album of the years’ listings, will have seen the merch stand packed and sales figures pleasingly rising.
It’s also a home gig for Jim and Sally who either bounce with unbridled abandon (Jim) or groove gently (Sally) at the appropriate moments. When in Rome eh? Is there any choice!?
Brendan’s hilariously rambling introduction to Black Beetle Pies (where Pete Flood gets to step down from his drums and take centre stage for his nightly beetle/crab-like dance which involves his percussion contraption) is a belter tonight. It usually involves insects, gussets and underwear for flavouring and bolster, but tonight’s ad-lib sees the creator of such delicacies wonderfully described as “a dirty woman.” He really should do more of the between-song banter. Like his uninhibited dance moves that come into play later in the set, there’s no script. Even Justin has taken a turn on this tour and he’s only a trombone player who pays no attention to the words, with his purpose to draw attention to the stage costumery of the band. The brass in the ‘period drama’ outfits, all adding a flat cap at the Manchester show, maybe acknowledging the working man roots of the industrial city; centre stage is bypassed quickly and there’s of course, the Saturday Night Fever disco glam over with Team Strings.
“Yeeessss Manchester!” comes in Lillibulero. Seems a popular one for dragging even the staunchest of chair dancers onto their feet and we get one final chance to admire Ed Neuhauser’s jigging over on the brass side – freed from the confines (and sheer weight) of the helicon that provides such a deep end, his moves along with Justin’s grooves, Brendan’s extravagance and Jim’s bouncing, means that side of the stage is never far from the attention. Often invaded by Sam Or Benji, they provide as many tableaux for the visuals, resolutely refusing to remain still.
A word too for the man who’s genuinely the twelfth member of the band – Andy Bell on the FOH sound. What a job he does, managing to bring the might of eleven players on wildly different instruments, to a unified mass. Tonight, there may have been a nudge on the faders or maybe where we were sat, but Rachael McShane’s vocal seemed to be much more identifiable. Not a moan at all, but a chance to pick her specifically in the mix to our untrained/unsophisticated ears dulled by too much Heavy Metal, was much appreciated.
Eighteen gigs in as roughly as many days. Make that thirty-six gigs for Sam Sweeney whose energy seems to have had no bounds. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that his light-up shoes (mainly) lasted the pace. Like his knees and shins, they must have taken a battering as like the midfield generals of old, he covered every square inch of the stage every night, and even some of the auditorium too. From being a rookie, first taken on tour by Bellowhead as a teenager, he’s now a senior member and a focal point of the band. The fact that they’ve got to the end of a tour without Paul Sartin too is of significance. The question of whether or not the tour should have gone ahead…well, maybe there was no question, but tonight, after another emotional Brisk Lad, both Sam and Rachael seem to need a moment to gather themselves.
To quote another band – one of our faves, Porcupine Tree – is this going to be closure or continuation? Surely not the former as drawing another line under proceedings and then regretting the decision a few more years down the line might see Bellowhead rivaling Lazarus and Kiss for comebacks. Surely some form of continuation is the answer. Maybe not on an annual/regular basis but at least the indication is that there’s hope rather than the despair felt in Oxford six years ago. We’ve been told there are no plans for 2024 so to make the most of this tour but with festival bills being assembled, would the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd for the odd Summer blowout be tempting?
And then there was the bloke on Twitter whose feed had been full of Bellowhead tweets for two weeks. His comment about how hard it was to think of another band that brings as much joy as these glorious people sum up the events of November 2022 for the Bellowhead followers.
Jon Boden’s parting shot has been a “See you again sometime.”
Categories: Live Reviews