Bellowhead Biography May 2011
by Graeme Thomson
Since their formation in 2004 Bellowhead have occupied a unique place in Britain’s musical landscape: a blistering 11-piece band fusing folk, funk, rock, world, jazz, music hall and classical music, they have succeeded in placing themselves at the cutting edge of the contemporary music scene while harnessing all the power and mystery of ancient English and European musical traditions.
Bellowhead are a delirious amalgam of schooled musicianship and anarchic abandon. A “bunch of mates” who came together initially to play the 2004 Oxford Festival, their impact was immediate. Fiddler Paul Sartin said recently that “our starting point is that we’re a live band, there’s an indefinable energy and dynamic when we all play in a big room.” Few who have witnessed them in action could argue: the Independent described Bellowhead as “surely the best live act in the country”, while they have been voted ‘Best Live Group’ at the BBC Folk Awards an unparalleled five times, in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
They may have started with no greater ambition than to become the last word in festival headliners but Bellowhead quickly evolved into a far significant proposition. Their recorded work has proved as ground-breaking as their live work. Following 2005’s five-track sampler ‘E.P.onymous’, in 2006 the band released their stunning debut ‘Burlesque’, an album which took Trad. Arr. staples such as “Death and the Lady” to places well beyond most artists’ imaginations. Praised for “its flowing stream of humour, intelligence, meticulous research, and free-ranging imagination”, in 60 minutes ‘Burlesque’ thoroughly redefined the possibilities for folk music in the new Millennium.<
Following widespread acclaim for their debut, 2007 proved a watershed year for the band. Much of it was spent honing the ever-increasing theatricality of their euphoric live shows in the UK and at major festivals throughout Europe and Canada. Their ‘Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire’ DVD, released in 2009, was recorded in 2007 during the ‘Burlesque’ tour and proved a thrilling document of the verve and drama of their live shows.
Having won ‘Best Group’ and ‘Best Live Band’ again at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Bellowhead made a milestone performance later in 2007 at the re-opening of London’s Royal Festival Hall. In the winter of that year they were appointed Artists-in-Residence at London’s prestigious Southbank Centre, following in the footsteps of Saint Etienne.
They have relished the role, staging a series of innovative concerts and unique collaborations, including 2007’s raucous Christmas Revels event and ‘A Dirty Weekend With Bellowhead’, their sell-out St Valentine’s Day concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall. A bawdy affair, it featured a 30-piece choir, Burlesque dancers and cross-dressing. There have also been some unforgettable New Year’s Eve parties: the 2009/10 bash included such delights as a silent disco and an ABBA ceilidh, while the most recent celebration brought a circus theme to the Southbank. In the summer of 2008, meanwhile, the band performed at the Proms in the Park and at the Proms Folk Day concert, where they brought a roaring Royal Albert Hall to its feet and, by common consent, utterly stole the show.
While ticking off numerous onstage highlights, Bellowhead have recorded two more furiously acclaimed, wonderfully ambitious studio albums. ‘Matachin’, released in September 2008, built on the power of their debut and was described by the Guardian as “a triumphant expedition into the past, which for all the antiquity of its songs is also a thoroughly modern piece of music-making.”
‘Hedonism’, released in October 2010, proved their most remarkable record to date. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios and produced by the legendary John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead, Muse), it fully captured the energy, innovation and excitement of the Bellowhead live experience. A landmark record in the band’s history, ‘Hedonism’ embellished their traditional English core with the vast, grandiose theatricality of Arcade Fire, the unsparing, bittersweet worldview of Jacques Brel, and a sprinkling of the kind of humour and whimsy that recalled the Bonzo Dog Band, all the while emphasising their ability to really dig down deep into a groove. Uncut called it “their best yet by several splendidly raucous miles”, while Q declared that “English folk has never seen or heard anything like Bellowhead at full throttle.” ‘Hedonism’ topped fRoots Critics’ Poll for Best Album of 2010 and won Bellowhead Best Group in Songlines 2011 Music Awards.
They launched the ‘Hedonism’ tour on November 11 2010 with typically theatrical élan, opening the ‘Winter Song’ season at the historic Bristol Old Vic, and thereafter played to packed houses up and down the land. They embarked on another short sold-out UK tour in the spring 2011 and recently announced more extensive dates for November 2011.
At the heart of this remarkable 11-piece band is a group of friends who create extraordinary things when they are in a room together. They fizz back and forth between the establishment and the fringes, dazzling and charming their way from the Southbank to the Big Chill, from Later.... with Jools Holland to the snug sofas of BBC 1’s Breakfast Time.
They are a band of many parts who continue to enthusiastically pursue an eclectic range of interests. In 2010 they launched their very own 4.5% proof ‘Hedonism’ Ale and recently recorded the theme tune to Ambridge Extra, the spin-off from the legendary BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers. This followed hot on the heels of their version of The Simpsons’ theme music, recorded to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. They remain Artists-in-Residence at the Southbank Centre and are currently readying the release of a new live DVD, recorded in Bournemouth in May 2011 during the triumphant ‘Hedonism’ tour.
Jon Boden : Vocals / Fiddle / Tambourine
John Spiers : Melodeon / Concertina
Benji Kirkpatrick : Guitar / Bouzouki / Mandolin / Banjo
Rachael McShane : Cello / Fiddle
Paul Sartin : Fiddle / Oboe
Sam Sweeney : Fiddle / Bagpipes
Pete Flood : Percussion
Ed Neuhauser : Sousaphone
Justin Thurgur : Trombone
Brendan Kelly : Saxophones / Bass Clarinet
Andy Mellon : Trumpet