The phrase “National treasure” is usually reserved for aging pop idols and dead comedians, but more deserving of the accolade is Bellowhead, the 11-strong folk supergroup that first hit the racks at HMV in 2004.
Fusing chamber music, jazz, ska and goodness-knows-what with traditional British folk songs and an ample injection of theatre, the band has been somewhat hilariously rattling the cages of folk music hierarchy whilst energetically pursuing their apparent mission to make arguably less-than-accessible music appealing to the masses simply by virtue of innovation, raw energy, idiosyncrasy and unsurpassed musicianship. With copious awards, critical acclaim, a decent TV presence and sales to match (they’ve won BBC Radio 2’s ‘Best Live Act’ five times and even clocked up notable success in the album charts), Bellowhead have probably done more to bring to the masses the traditional music at the heart of their music than any number of their peers.
Indeed, Bellowhead are truly something special… but after 12 years of ceremoniously sticking two fingers up at the status quo, their barrier-breaking conundrum of a musical journey is, very sadly I might add, drawing to a close. Notwithstanding my sorrow at their demise, rather delightfully, they depart with a mammoth package of live material (entitled, somewhat clinically, ‘The Farewell Tour’) that goes some way to reminding the world what a weird and wonderful legacy they leave behind, proving beyond doubt that no longer is folk music the sole possession of old bearded men in roll necks… no, it’s ours for the taking regardless of facial hair or clothing!
But goodness, where to start! The record pulls together over 50 tracks from the band’s November 2015 tour in support of their adventurous (even by Bellowhead standards) ‘Revival’ album and, as you would expect with that quantity of music, there are moments that slip unfortunately into the background. Nonetheless, as a document of what made the band so blinking interesting, the package does the job. Crashing into action with the thunderous, majestic “Roll Alabama”, and bouncing through a back catalogue that is peppered with brilliance, anyone investing in the CD/DVD Farewell Tour release will get what they expect – “New York Girls”, “Whiskey Is The Life Of Man”, “Gosport Nancy” et al. Alongside the sublime, there is of course the ridiculous (“Lilibulero”), the beautiful (“Moon Kittens”) and the odd import (“Old Dun Cow”).
For those that haven’t been treated to the live spectacle, there’s now not much of a chance I’m afraid – their farewell tour sold out shortly after tickets went on sale. All is not lost though – the third disc (a live DVD) demonstrates perfectly where the brilliant racket comes from – who would have guessed the basslines come from a helicon (a brass instrument like a tuba) or sometimes the horn section throw in a cheeky Morris dance or the drummer appears to play a randomly arranged pile of drums rather than a drum kit or the singer (the brilliantly wayward Jon Boden) looks as though he’s been borrowed from Green Day.
Bellowhead have contributed much and perhaps not received the attention they should have, but the fact that they will soon be no more is desperately sad – the music industry, even society, needs art like this – a pure injection of love, passion and harmless mischief. Doubtlessly we will hear from the constituent parts of the whole at a later date (every member of the band has a noteworthy solo career), but it most likely will never be the same.
Goodbye Bellowhead, you will be missed.
For more information about Bellowhead, members of the band, their back catalogue and their UK Farewell Tour, visit www.bellowhead.co.uk
by Owen Gillham