There aren’t many bands whose 5th album becomes their first on a major label but then Bellowhead are most definitely not like any other band. 11 members combining all manner of instrumentation, and playing songs & tunes almost exclusively mined from traditional English folksong is not a normal recipe for success, yet audiences across the world beg to differ.
‘Revival’, released on Island Records marks the latest step in Bellowhead’s ascent. Starting initially as a scratch big band with just one rehearsal before their debut at Oxford Folk Festival in 2004, they celebrated their first decade at a sold out Royal Albert Hall in April 2014. In-between they’ve become one of the best live bands anywhere, in any genre, garnered critical acclaim for their music, sold hundreds of thousands of records and started a trend by brewing their own real ale.
Legendarily the band came together as folk music duo John Spiers and Jon Boden sat in a traffic jam wondering how they could get to headline folk festivals. Quickly assembling a diverse cast of characters – from guitarist Benji Kirkpatrick, part of a family steeped in the folk tradition to Pete Flood, a jazz influenced drummer whose mother happened to work in the same shop as Jon’s, and who provided a bridge to a different world of musicians, recruiting a classically trained brass section. Remarkably, with one early departure and a later move enforced by a member emigrating to Japan, the line-up has remained constant since.
The band attracted attention from the start, early gigs at The Scala in London selling out and with fans queuing around the block. A festival dance-floor was broken at Sidmouth and two others at Towersey. Somehow 11 musicians together combined to be greater than the sum of their parts, a uniquely raucous, richly coloured mix of folk, funk, music hall, jazz, classical and improvisational dissonance, spiked with a penchant for creating wild and inventive new arrangements for traditional English dance tunes and ballads.
But the feeling that this was all a bit of a laugh persisted, an early self-release being entitled E.P.Onymous. Things began to get serious around the time of their first album release, Burlesque (2006), the David Angel’s striking photography matching the band’s own joie de vivre. Critics were united, Songlines called it ‘the most important folk record since Liege & Lief’ whilst the Independent described them as ‘surely the best live act in the country’. The band appeared on Later With Jools, attracting the unexpected attention of headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers who named them as the best act on that night.
Awards started to flow, the first of an unprecedented 5 ‘Best Live Act’ at the BBC Folk Awards, nominated as Artists in Residence at London’s South Bank Centre in succession to St Etienne which sparked a memorable runs of sold out special events – including two New Year’s Eve parties and a Valentine’s special ‘Dirty Weekend with Bellowhead’. Live too, the world broadened with bookings at Glastonbury, Proms in the Park and their first appearance at the Albert Hall as part of Radio 3’s Folk Prom in 2008. They also lent their unique style to two long running, albeit very different parts of broadcasting culture, recording, at the programme producers’ request, new versions of the theme tunes of The Simpsons and The Archers.
How to top all this? By recording their third album Hedonism (2010) with legendary producer John Leckie at the even more legendary Studio 2 at Abbey Road. Led by the infectious track New York Girls, the band made a repeat visit to Later with Jools and were promptly booked for his Hootenanny. As radio-play picked up, so did sales, garnering the band silver discs and acclaim, 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.”
With tongues firmly still in cheek, Bellowhead proudly brewed their own real ale, also named ‘Hedonism’ and also like the band, selling out wherever it was on sale, an idea much copied, outside the folk world, to the band’s delight, ever since.
The next album Broadside (2012), also with John Leckie, saw radio interest confirmed with 3 singles being play listed at BBC Radio 2 and the same station’s Folk Awards naming it Best Album. Live audiences continued to grow with larger venues such as London’s Roundhouse and Sheffield’s City Hall selling out, whilst in conjunction with UK festivals such as V2, T in the Park, Latitude, the band explored further afield with European tours and festivals.
They’ve returned in 2014 with sold out birthday shows at Manchester’s Bridgwater Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. Having come this far, under pretty much their own steam – the release of ‘Revival’ on Island Records looks to propel them yet further. The humour is still the same though – ‘After a decade together, we’re ready for some overnight success’ said band member Paul Sartin. The album will be released on Island’s Pink label, renowned in the 1970’s for acts such as Fairport Convention, John Martyn and Nick Drake. ‘You look at the history of Island, such a cool brand and reputation across folk and then Bob Marley onto U2 and recently the Mumfords, it’s perfect for us’.
Andy Mellon – Trumpet
Benji Kirkpatrick – Guitar / Bouzouki / Mandolin / Banjo
Brendan Kelly – Saxophones / Bass Clarinet
Ed Neuhauser – Sousaphone
John Spiers – Melodeon / Concertina
Jon Boden – Vocals / Fiddle / Tambourine
Justin Thurgur – Trombone
Paul Sartin – Fiddle / Oboe
Pete Flood – Percussion
Rachael McShane – Cello / Fiddle
Sam Sweeney – Fiddle / Bagpipes