Bellowhead: Liverpool Philharmonic – live review

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Bellowhead
Liverpool Philharmonic
18th February 2013

Words/Pics: Michael Ainscoe

Spotted recently on facebook:
“When I grow up I want to be in Bellowhead.”
Bellowhead – “You can’t have both.”

With Bellowhead riding high on the crest of a wave with a sell out tour backed by the 2013 ‘best album’ at the BBC Folk Awards, the nautical theme of the Broadside album came to life on stage in Liverpool’s rather splendid Philharmonic Hall; the expansive platform being transformed into a traditional galleon, resplendent with a backdrop of sails and rigging hanging down amidst percussionist Pete Flood’s armoury of instruments and Benji Kirkpartick’s guitars standing proudly like a line of muskets ready to do their duty.. It seemed as if the set designer for the Bellowhead stage show had taken a leaf out of the Les Miserables book and created a set where the band could perform their arrangements of songs of old amidst a worthy setting. Smoke drifted and hung in the air, at times highlighted by stark white beams, making the whole scene resemble the aftermath of a sea battle, cannons spent and calm beckoning.

In fact, some modern day piracy was afoot during the first half of the show as the band returned a little late after the interval with a tale of stolen laptops while they’d been performing! Taking out some frustrations with an untypical angry aggressive take on Sally Racket, it was almost punk like in its arrangement as the band pogo danced around and fiddle player Sam Sweeney did his best Johnny Rotten impression, head cocked and twisting himself round the mic stand.

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From tales of eating insects and swilling whiskey to love songs from Swindon, sea shanties and the more philosophical What’s The Life Of Man (Any More Than A Leaf)? the songs are impeccably arranged and performed. The admittedly more polished studio sound of Broadside, much rawer live and of course the visual, comedy and dramatic elements all contribute to ensuring a rousing live performance.
Principal vocalist Jon Boden held court from centre stage, arms aloft in conducting proceedings and contributing the occasional fervent fiddle playing, legs spread and cutting a rabid Basil Fawlty-like figure, to the likes of the polka tune Cross Eyed And Chinless. Boden is looking a little more dapper these days in his waistcoat and winged collar shirt as opposed to the general Bellowhead style of shabby charity shop chic. Not to be outdone, all eleven musicians vie for attention, with the brass section in particular making much more than a musical contribution; trombonist Justin Thurger looking rather ruddy cheeked in his attempts to keep up to speed with his cavorting colleagues out in the spaces of the left wing.

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It was the last half hour of the evening when Bellowhead upped the ante and went into overdrive (or whatever the nautical equivalent might be). When they play a run of songs like they did with Haul Away, Lillibulero, the Sloe Gin set of dance tunes and of course (if they were a rock band what would be called their ‘anthem’) New York Girls, you can see why people compare their dynamic performance as only matched by the likes of The Who albeit with more of a sense of fun. Goaded into action by John Spier’s introduction to the Sloe Gin dance tunes (“tunes to dance to”) inhibitions gave way and even some of the more courteous and reserved grown men and women could be spotted jigging alongside the younger and more excitable folk converts.

Remarkable to think that next year Bellowhead celebrate their 10th anniversary, with plans already in the pipeline. Long may they sail the seas in their quest to bring traditional folk music to the masses!

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