On your seat or on your feet?
Following the release of the new album ‘Revival’ on the famed Island Record label, eleven piece folk big band Bellowhead are back out on tour. However, the show takes two very different forms. Louder Than War’s Mike Ainscoe investigates.
Rock fans might recognise the little play on the 1975 ‘On Your Feet Or On Your Knees’ from US hard rockers Blue Oyster Cult’s 1975 live album, yet it seems a suitable title on which to reflect this year’s Autumn Bellowhead tour. The dates cover the usual selection of venues around the country yet vary between standing gigs and those which have reserved seats. While many fans of folk music may veer towards the more mature in years and who prefer the comfort of sitting down at a gig, there are the youngsters who find the idea of jumping around with a vibrant young(ish) band quite appealing and dare we say, sexy. Opinions therefore are divided. To sit or to stand. Maybe the opening two gigs of the tour would help sort out the question.
For a start, the seated and standing gigs are organised differently. Seated sees just Bellowhead performing and doing two sets with an interval. Maybe the need for a comfort break or to stretch your legs (in which case why not stand up and dance?) or maybe get an ice cream in one of those little tubs with a plastic or wooden spoon which usually cost about £3 unless it’s one of the quality brand in which case you’d be paying more towards a fiver for having to chisel away at the solid product and swallowing it down so quickly before the second half starts that you get brain freeze and endure the rest of the gig with an impending migraine……we are digressing.
Anyone going for the standing option only gets one Bellowhead set (a decent length one however) but a support slot for the impressive Moulettes – a quartet of chamber/progressive/psychedelic folk rockers very much in the same maverick vein as the headliners. Just hope the dressing rooms are large enough to cope.
The Victoria Theatre, Halifax 7th November 2014
And so to the Victoria Theatre, Halifax for the opening date. A warm and elegant old venue perfectly suited for the outwardly ramshackle yet highly professional Bellowhead bravura – a very old style music hall ambience, yet with the seats removed from the stalls it forms a gentle slope towards the stage with good sightlines and plenty room to jig about. Of course, the circle and balcony horseshoe around the auditorium for those opting for a higher and seated vantage point.
The Moulettes provided an interesting opening set, dramatically lit against a plain black backdrop, stark plain footlighting casting elongated shadows onto the canvas. Hannah Miller’s eerie vocals swooping around the string drenched soundscape.
The backdrop was all revealed, literally, as the houselights went down for the main course. Some introductory musical sounds soon gave way to the thumping drum beat of ‘Revival’ opening track ‘Let Her Run’ as the curtain dropped to reveal the band bathed in glorious swirling lights atop a stage set reflecting a more contemporary production. Quite an impressive opening and a first chance to look at quite an impressive stage set; gone is last years nautical setting with the rigging and tall ships theme and in its place is something more contemporary, keeping in theme with the slightly obscure, almost Roger Dean styled album design: a tall drum riser for Pete Flood and flanked by two more platforms which meant that throughout the night, rather than being restricted to the usual front line formation, the band could jump around various parts of the set without getting lost from view. An striking set of lights supported on exposed steel struts added to the modern feel and a huge backdrop of the album cover similarly supported by a couple of vertical girders. Maybe the influence and backing of a bigger name label in Island Records, but all to the good for bringing their indefinite take on folk music to the masses.
Oh and was the sofa mentioned? Who else but Bellowhead would carry a sofa, quite a nice brown leather looking one too, as part of their stage set – all designed for the brass boys to take the occasional break on top of their riser when their brass parts were redundant.
However, all modifications aside, that’s not to say that Bellowhead have gone all trendy although the opening number, complete with Benji Kirkpartick on a strangely un-folk-like electric guitar was particularly driving and funky but the days of the outwardly ramshackle presentation and charity shop chic appearance seem to have taken a back seat. Having dusted off an opening trio of songs and the initial excitement of ‘they’re here and playing’!’ starting to wane, the ’Rochdale Coconut Dance’ dance tune crossed the county boundaries and upped the ante again and earned one of the biggest ovations of the evening.
Of course, the repertoire remains firmly rooted in songs about drinking and the usual collection of sea shanties which lend themselves so well to what Bellowhead do along with some of the less salubrious aspects of life in which they delight; ‘London Town’ cheerfully introduced as “a jolly song about ripping off a prostitute” before the mass “up to the rigs, down to the jigs, up to the rigs” audience participation led by trumpeter Andy Mellon.
There was also a for one night only world premiere of a set of tunes called ‘The March Past’ whose Scots inflections and dynamic pace, while sandwiched between two healthy new cuts in ‘Gosport Nancy’ and ‘Roll Alabama’ upped the pace the pace again. It was the new album ‘Revival’ which made up half the set with virtually all songs getting a look in. Of the new material, the opening night standouts were ‘Rosemary Lane’, based on the original ‘Ballad Of The Elfin Knight’ yet made more famous by the Simon & Garfunkel folk song (not) ‘Scarborough Fair, but a bit more shouty! It’s status emphasised by being sequenced in the penultimate song of the main set slot, just before Jon Boden bellows his usual call of “we’re just got time for one more!” and all hell breaks loose as ‘New York Girls’ kicks in and everyone realises their last chance (before the encore naturally) to go for it with mass clapping and bouncing.
An extended playout to the encore of ‘Roll The Woodpile Down’ gave singer Jon Boden, all resplendent in shocking pink jacket and tie, plenty more chances to gesture wildly before the rampage which is ‘Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth’ brought the evening to an end. With eleven focal points it’s hard to know where to look – all wildly carefree with band and crowd bouncing along in unison and band members criss-crossing the stage and using the riser and platforms as a musical playground; Sam Sweeney swapping from fiddle to pipes and back again all the while pogoing around like a lost misplaced folk punk, its typical of the celebratory quality of a Bellowhead show.
Sheffield City Hall 8th November 2014
A Saturday night in South Yorkshire saw the auditorium pretty packed all the way round the two galleries and up into the carved ceiling as well as in the stalls. For some of the Yorkshire born or based band, it was friends and family evening which might have upped the numbers a little and quite a historic night too as it was fifty years to the day since The Beatles trod on the very same stage.
A different set up too this evening with the full stage set up on view – no black curtain, possibly it not being expansive enough to cover the set in the vast open spaces of the oval hall, so necessitating a slight tweaking to the nights setlist. Also added to the stage set were some suitably fitting items of foliage – at a guess, possibly left over from local hero Richard Hawley’s gig here a couple of years back when they decorated his ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ set. No support meant two sets from Bellowhead with an interval and a seated audience who had the chance to pick and choose when to get up for a jig and when to sit back and relax so giving a clear message to the band about where the dance parts to the set are!
Just as the opening night had an special start to the show, the ‘new’/no curtain opening was similarly different and striking. Lights down and intro music in place and all of a sudden there’s the fiddle introduction to ‘Roll Albama’ from nowhere and suddenly Sam Sweeney walks into the spotlight playing stage right, while Pete Flood mirroered the move stage left, beating out on a huge bass drum. Both adopting poses on the side platforms while the band join them and pick up the steady pulse of the song.
It didn’t quite have the same exciting high tempo impact of ‘Let Her Run’, tonight shuffled around to open the second set, but certainly something equally eye catching and building the beginning slowly rather than with a bang. The ‘Rochdale Coconut Dance’ tune slot tonight was replaced by ‘Cross Eyed & Chinless’ – much of a muchness in terms of same type of tune, and also in the fact that it was the first sighting of – shock, horror – dancers, whose itch to get up on their feet and have a jig had to be scratched. Honestly, it’s hard not to and for even those who seem to prefer to remain seated and do the traditional English chair dance seems to be slightly half hearted. Let’s be frank, it has to be all or nothing!!! What seemed like a very short first half at forty minutes, felt like we’d only just begun and having got warmed up and excited with the high points of ‘March Past’ and ‘Gosport Nancy’, taking a break seems to leave everyone in a slightly unfulfilled state. However, some say too much of a good thing always leaves one wanting less, so with the prospect of another whole set to come, it offers a different perspective on the show. There are naturally the issues of pacing after and starting up the old engines which might have gone cold in the interval or possibly even revived by an alcoholic beverage to gird the loins for the second half.
In fact a second half which began with a bang again in realigned opener ‘Let Her Run’, combining with ‘Whiskey Is the Life Of Man’ and some well meaning and highly entertaining dad dancing from the brass boys – something for which Brendan Kelly surely finds some liberation while Justin Thurger is slowly and steadily finding his feet – meant that any stiffness could soon be shaken off.
The combination of ‘Greenwood Side’, ‘Jack Lintel’, ‘Moon Kittens’, tonight received with polite applause (as opposed to the roar which followed the new, world premiere in Halifax – remember – ‘March Past’) seem to be in the calm before the storm slot just as the show is set to hit its climax. The lull of ‘Captain Wedderburn’ and the aforementioned ‘Revival’ trio only gave way to a more extended and boisterous close to the set, with the two songs from ‘Revival’ – ‘Rosemary Lane’ and ‘Let Union Be’ – which seem to be picking up the status as hits of the set sitting alongside the repositioned singalong of ‘London Town’ and of course ‘New York Girls’.
And looking around, by this stage, not only all the stalls are standing, but curving round and up into the gods, people stood and waved uninhibitedly, making for what must have seemed a joyous party scene from stage. Taking the chance to play their onstage version of musical chairs, Brendan Kelly had crossed the stage while Sam Sweeney found himself on the centre mic. Only poor Benji Kirkpartick found himself retrained by a woefully short guitar lead which foiled his attempts to get up onto the far platform by unplugging however hard he tried. Whether or not it was his hometown gig, to the sight if his children leading the dancing, Jon Boden was like a man possessed on fiddle on the final ‘Frogs Legs’ tune, twitching uncontrollably in the shadows as the band en masse led from the front.
So – back to the conundrum – having seats or having to stand – does it make a difference? For those who argue vehemently for standing gigs, you can see the point in terms of interaction and involvement. For sure there’s the inevitable general movement in a standing gig which creates that general ripple effect you don’t get when people are stationary in a seat. Yet there were times in Sheffield when it didn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference. Maybe in the long run it doesn’t as the audience make the event whether they’re seated or not. The fact that there are seats means that there’s an obvious distinction when the audience do (and don’t) want to get up and dance – it gives a clear message to the band as to what they need to play if they want those seated to get up. There was a clear message when everyone (mostly) was up and bouncing to ‘Cross Eyed & Chinless’ (or whatever dance tune gets into the song #4 slot) which was followed by the more elegant ‘Betsy Baker’ and accompanied by the clunk of lowering chairs as people took a breather. Maybe the jury’s still out suffice to say that any night out with Bellowhead is like the circus coming to town.