During lockdown in 2020, the 11 members of Bellowhead first re-connected online to remotely record “New York Girls – At Home”. That led to re-uniting in person for a one-off performance which was streamed to mark the anniversary of ‘Hedonism’. The band had officially called it a day in 2016, but the response to this led to them reforming for a series of farewell gigs in November 2022, so now is a good time to look back at their final album, which got to #12 in the UK charts when it was released in 2014. Given just how underground the folk scene tends to be in the UK that is nothing short of remarkable, yet at the time they were gigging across the UK, Europe and North America and had become a key fixture on the festival scene. In the process they won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Live Act five times, as well as Best Group twice. They had also been Artists in Residence at London’s South Bank Centre for 5 years, hosted a Christmas special for BBCTV, and, of course, launched their own real ale.
In many ways this was the closest the folk scene had come to a big band, with icons like Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention and even The Albion Band performing in smaller line-ups, here we had a band who had 11 members, all contributing to the overall sound, and even included a helicon (which I am sure is the first time I have ever mentioned this member of the tuba family). Yet with all these instruments, the arrangements are refined and never feel muddied, with Joe Boden’s vocals clearly to the fore. The album kicks off with the high energy “Let It Roll”, a driving snare, short sharp brass, and we are off into a folk song which also owes much to both jazz and rock with that helicon providing an underlying bass more often taken by that instrument. It is a stunning way to open the album as it is incredibly catchy and inviting so the listener is immediately invested in what is happening and everything else falls to the side.
This is followed by “Roll Alabama” which has far more in the way of fiddles and approaches folk from a bluegrass area, showing just how much breadth the band has in their influences. It is unusual for Bellowhead to record covers, so to hear “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” was something of a surprise. It is a song I have heard in many different arrangements already, given that Richard Thompson is always reprising how he presents his own music, but even though there are many instruments in this one, it really swings and is something which fans need to seek out (BTW – if you have yet to read Thompson’s book ‘Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975’ then do nor delay any further as it is essential).
This is an album of incredible breadth and depth, always with Boden’s vocals front and centre, and somehow there is a strong use of space as the threads intertwine together to produce wonderful sounds and never become knotted or matted. Some nine years after its release it is still a stunning and wonderful piece of work which fans of folk really need to investigate further.