Words by Julian May
Britain’s best loved big band bids us adieu
Bellowhead made some great studio albums but their concerts are extraordinary. There was the horn section, kicking like a chorus line (including Brendon Kelly on sax pictured above); Jon Boden and Paul Sartin’s morris jigging; Sam Sweeney leaping on risers like Bruce Springsteen while wielding his fiddle; and Jon Spiers looking on like an indulgent primary school teacher at the creative mayhem surrounding him. But this big band never let the audience forget that each of the 11 members was a brilliant instrumentalist, nor that they had an enormous range – from wild free jazz to strict liturgical choral traditions – to draw on.
Much of their repertoire is English folk song, but their treatment of it owes as much to Kurt Weill (and maybe even Kurt Cobain) than Cecil Sharp. Jon Boden sings like the Norfolk folk singer Peter Bellamy, but also like chansonnier Jacques Brel. Indeed, when Bellowhead’s farewell tour caravan pulled into the London Palladium, the show opened with Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’. What was striking, as the concert progressed, was that it sounded no less passionate and deeply felt than the shanty ‘Roll Alabama’, ‘Fine Sally’ or the eerie ballad ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’. Those with an appreciation of English folk love Bellowhead for making this music urgent and anthemic – making it live.