O2 at Southampton Guildhall
Saturday 15th November 2014
Support: The Moulettes
Jon Boden – lead vocal, fiddle, percussion
John Spiers – melodeons, concertina, vocal
Benji Kirkpatrick – guitar, bazouki, mandolin, banjo, vocals
Rachael McShane – cello, fiddle, vocals
Paul Sartin – fiddle, oboe, vocals
Sam Sweeney – fiddle, bagpipes, vocal
Pete Flood – percussion, vocal
Ed Neuhauser – helicon, sousaphone, vocal
Brendan Kelly – saxophone, clarinet, vocal
Justin Thurgur – trombone, vocal
Andy Mellon- trumpet, vocal
Let Her Run (Revival)
10,000 Miles Away (Broadside )
Cross-Eyed and Chinless (Hedonism)
Betsy Baker (Broadside )
Roll Alabama Roll (Revival )
Jack Lintel’s Jig (Revival )
Fine Sally (Revival )
Moon Kittens (Revival )
Captain Wedderburn (Hedonism)
Greenwood Side (Revival )
Let Union Be (Revival )
Gosport Nancy (Revival )
Three New Tunes: March Past / Jock Wilson of Frampton / Bonnie Kate of Lowtown
Whiskey Is The Life of Man (Matachin)
London Town (Burlesque)
Rosemary Lane (Revival )
New York Girls (Hedonism)
Roll The Woodpile Down (Broadside )
Frog’s Legs and Dragons’ Teeth (Burlesque )
This also reviews the album …
I love the way Bellowhead do it with new albums. They name the tour after the latest album, and they go out and do the album full justice. I thought Revival was designed for live performance – high energy, gusto, lots going on. I went not sure whether Roll Alabama Roll was my favourite track or whether it was Moon Kittens, or the Richard & Linda Thompson cover, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. I was curious to see which song from the album I came home singing to myself.
To make reviews easier, I always check recent set lists in advance. Birmingham on the 9th, and Liverpool on the 10th were near identical sets to each other, with twenty-two songs and every single track from Revival. The only difference was one opened with Let Her Run, the other with Roll Alabama. They switched places. So that’s what I was expecting at Southampton. Not so. The set was three songs shorter. The missing ones from Revival were Seeds of Love, and … horror! … I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Then Black Beetle Pies / Trip to Bucharest were cut. More later on this.
The stage set was great. A red-lit curtain covered the set, which consisted of platforms creating multiple levels, with trees, plants and a sofa. First we saw lights through the curtains, then the curtain fell dramatically at the start to reveal all this. The lighting plot was superb, and in recent fashion used small decorative lights on the set which went on and off in patterns . The energy levels and exuberance of the band are unmatched.
They opened with Let Her Run, as does the album. That’s the thing about Revival: Let Her Run, then Roll Alabama Roll – both the first two tracks are perfect set openers … which gives one hell of a strong start to the album. 10,000 Miles Away was up next, and I love the stories about the songs which they take it in turns to tell. I’d rather they expand them. The song was my favourite last time I saw them. They explained that the instrumental, or “tune” as folk bands would have it, Cross Eyed and Chinless was originally called Prince Regent, but they changed the name. Tunes are a high point, especially for the standing and jumping fans.
So far the set was running like the earlier ones with Betsy Baker next. It’s my favourite song on Broadside and it shows how far their arrangements are getting from any concept of “folk”. As with Seth Lakeman it’s “English popular music with acoustic instruments” though in Bellowhead’s case they seem quite obsessive about retaining original folk song lyrics. Betsy Baker is somewhere between a late Beatles Magical Mystery Tour outtake, and ELO doing their Beatlesque thing. The sound is enormous.
This is where the set list changed, only picking up at the end and encores. Roll Alabama Roll was next. The highest energy song of the lot. The song is on Jon Boden’s downloadable 365-song Folk Song A Day series for “June.” It also has a Peter Bellamy connection, as so many do. He has said:
I used to sing this a lot when I got started with fiddle-singing. It always used to go down well at the Talking Heads in Southampton. One of the great shanty choruses I think, although I’m not sure it’s actually a work shanty?
So it’s back to Southampton for it. I love the song because I recall writing an essay on The Alabama a British-built warship for the Confederate navy in the Civil War. Jon Boden’s equally fascinated, describing the story in the Revival sleeve notes. It sank or captured 65 Union ships before it was sunk. Many of the crew were British mercenaries too. But forget the history, for months my grandkids demand to hear Bellowhead’s version and race around at high speed to it. As I would have done in the hall if there had been room.
Jack Lintel’s Jig followed, a tune from Revival. i.e. instrumental. There was a long section with just three fiddles, melodeon and bouzouki, and you wonder where they find all these haunting melodies. This one is not a generic folk jig “tune” at all. Always read the sleeve notes. This Sam Sweeney arrangement comes from a 1770 manuscipt in Northumberland.
Fine Sally was next. The introduction was much funnier than the sleeve notes this time. The audience were exhorted to do as the rejected suitor doctor does in the song: dance on Fine Sally’s grave.
Like Fine Sally, the next song Moon Kittens was arranged by percussionist Pete Flood. He says Possibly the only example of 17th century doggerel set to a tune inspired by a stint as Easy Listening music buyer at the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street. It is cinematic in style and scale as it opens, and we are in a section where the lighting plot goes to town on creating moods. One of my three favourite tracks on the album too. A touch of McCartney?
We’re into the lighting plot (sorry, it always interests me) and the best all evening was for Captain Wedderburn, where a hazy blue had the band dissolved as if in a mist … they had retreated onto the higher platforms. Jon Boden in his hunting pink jacket was brightly lit and alone, until a light slowly picked out Rachael McShane on cello, and they duetted. Sublime performances, brilliantly lit.
Greenwood Side is a version of The Cruel Mother ballad, arranged by Jon Boden. I think these guys under-estimate their own contributions. To me, Greenwood Side reminds me of Jon Boden’s composition Dancing in The Factory from Songs From The Floodplain and it’s more than just the line low down in the valley. I mean, if he were Bob Dylan or Paul Simon he’d just say he’d written it. Actually, it made me wonder why they’re so strict about the traditional / modern separation. I think Dancing In The Factory is an even better song. The missing modern cover, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is a covers road worth investigating … they also cover Towne Van Zandt’s “Rake” on the Revival De-luxe edition second CD. Greenwood Side was an example of a song that hadn’t leapt out so much on the album, but really had impact live.
Let Union Be was mentioned in the stage intros as popular in the early American union movement, presumably the IWW or Wobblies circa 1920. The sleeve notes trace its collection to Sabine Baring-Gould, the Devon composer of Onward Christian Soldiers, who had a penchant for writing religious lyrics to existing rousing tunes. You can’t get more rousing than this. Let it sit in their set for a couple of years, and I can see it migrating to first encore:
Let union be in all our hearts
Let all our hearts be joined as one
We’ll end the day as we begun
We’ll end it all in pleasure.
It’s a natural.
Jon Boden knows South-East Hampshire. Gosport Nancy followed. We had remarks about Eastleigh and Portsmouth, though I didn’t catch the import, but Southampton and Portsmouth have ancient rivalry, and Gosport was where the fleet came in. Raucous. Fun.
These folk tunes only travel in threes, and they announced the set of three as “three new tunes.” They were March Past, Jock Wilson of Frampton (?) and Bonny Kate of Lowtown (?) Another well curated trio.
Whiskey Is The Life of A Man marked a run towards the end, I think. It was followed by London Town with its traditional (for Bellowhead shows) vigorous Up to the rigs / down to the jigs chants and hand movements with the packed crowd joining in.
Rosemary Lane is something of a feature, being the lyric of Scarborough Fair with a different (older?) tune and arrangement. The Pogueish way it was done was almost punk-folk. The written by Simon & Garfunkel … NOT comment is true, but they could still learn something from that!
“Time for one more” was called at a mere 75 minutes in. New York Girls – the sixth live version I’ve seen in two years, counting three Spiers and Boden shows. Yes. As ever. Wish I could have heard the lyrics clearly though.
The encores were standard: Roll The Woodpile Down then the “tunes” Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth. As expected, huge reception, lots of stomping. Lights on at an exact 90 minutes.
I’m going to be quite critical, but take that in the context of “I agree that Bellowhead are the most exciting live band in Britain” “they proved that tonight” and “Jon Boden is a charismatic singer of the first rank.”
My main criticism is identical to Poole Lighthouse (LINKED) eighteen months ago. The playing and material is Premier League. But the sound mixing and balance is not. Jon Boden’s vocal … and all the other vocals, even on introductions … were laden with echo. Was it the hall? Well, we saw Seth Lakeman here a few weeks ago and while there was echo at the start of the support set, the sound was superb by the main set. The words were really hard to follow tonight. The echo makes vocals indistinct. I did consider that for Seth Lakeman we had been on the flat floor, here we were in the raked seating area … the flat area was switched to standing for Bellowhead. But my feeling was exactly the same at Poole. Either the vocals are too low in the mix, or the band are too loud. Whichever, the balance is wrong. There is a school of thought that slightly swamped vocals enhance excitement as with the earlier Rolling Stones live material, or punk, and you won’t find a more exciting live band than Bellowhead at full steam. But the earlier bands had no technological option. In 2014 you do.
They should know how good The Full English sounded – Sam Sweeney was there – and their sound was impeccable. You can’t hear the Bellowhead lyrics distinctly. There is one hell of a lot going on, which is the joy of Bellowhead, but Boden is a superb, nuanced singer, and here he seemed to be shouting some of the time. It is a swine with so many naturally loud acoustic instruments. There were also a lot of radio mics on instruments. Leonard Cohen keeps everything wired. My companion stated a clear preference for Spiers and Boden’s duo shows (she’s seen three), because you can hear the words. The playing is fabulous, intricate and involving. It’s down to mix and balance. Maybe it’s even down to the mics and PA system. Actually, they sounded better at Larmer Tree (LINKED) in the open air. Southampton Guildhall is a box with hard shiny surfaces all round. It’s naturally going to bounce and echo, but you should be able to compensate. Listen to James Taylor, Seth Lakeman, The Full English. Or listen to John Cale and Brian Wilson with orchestral sections and even more amplified musicians on stage. The sound mix coped with the instruments tonight, but the voices really suffered.
There are some “don’t do’s.” Don’t make a big fuss about how much you love Southampton (Jon Boden grew up in Winchester, a very short distance away and started out in Southampton clubs), then ask as if a real question “have we got time for another?” while the roadies either side of you are already changing the instruments for the band’s next number. Ask the roadies to hold back at the edge until you have apparently been dragged into another encore by unexpected enthusiasm and your love of the city. Mind you, the roadies should have sussed that themselves. Even more so, don’t ever do an exact to the second 90 minute show in a hall with two clocks facing the audience. It smacks of contractual obligation, as when we saw Dr. John cut off mid song as the prominent timer on his piano hit 90 minutes. Do 88 minutes. Do 92 minutes. Just don’t ever time it to a precise 90 minutes including encores. It was exact. You’re left with a feeling of steely professionalism belying all that flat-out energy and enthusiasm.
Southampton Guildhall: before the show
The Southampton Guildhall O2 has some major faults too. During the fabulous support set by The Moulettes, while hundreds of us listened to a magical set in rapt attention, just a couple of dozen braying arseholes were shouting away in the bar. The bar has three open doors onto the auditorium (much too posh a word for this municipal space) going right along one side. Those few arseholes were ruining the set, and we were as far away as you could get. CLOSE THE BAR WHILE BANDS ARE PLAYING. We were in the seated area. Even during Bellowhead where the braying arseholes had come into the main hall, two people in the row behind us had to replenish their beers THREE times in 90 minutes and push along the row saying “Sorry” at full volume each time. It’s not a pub. It’s a concert. CLOSE THE BARS WHILE BANDS ARE PLAYING. The gents urinals in the intervals were blocked and running all over the floor. Too much beer? CLOSE THE BARS WHILE BANDS ARE PLAYING. So zero rating for Southampton Guildhall as a venue, except that they have really nice pleasant and friendly staff, vastly nicer than other O2s I won’t mention. The people taking the tickets and doing the bag check are actually welcoming.
I did wonder why Bellowhead had to play there. Standing vastly increases capacity (Seth Lakeman was all-seated), and Bellowhead like to have people jumping up and down, as they said. But even so it’s amazing that neither Southampton nor Portsmouth have a decent large venue. I remember when the Mayflower – then called the Gaumont … which is a decent hall … used to do concerts. Musicals and pantomimes fill it nowadays.
So what was the earworm, still resonating through the night as we drove home? Annoyingly it was New York Girls (yet again). Though Captain Wedderburn was my standout song in the show. But when I woke in the morning, Let Her Run was on replay in my head.
I Wanted To Hear The Bright Words Tonight.
The Moulettes were a strong support choice. They’re described as alt-folk, but what isn’t? Art –folk is better. They were in their “Moulettes-Lite” incarnation, the basic unaugmented four piece.
I’m unfamiliar with their material, but the third song was Constellations from their current album, the fourth was Songbird, their best-known song, and Lady Vengeance was fifth. I didn’t catch the titles of the first, second and sixth … a note, if you’re playing support, be sure to let the unfamiliar in the audience what you’re playing.
They’re very hard to describe. Well, OK … if you take The Kronos Quartet with two ethereal female vocalists and add a touch of Peter Gabriel and The Unthanks and you’re getting near it. Definitely a band to investigate further.
See note above about the very small number of boozing braying arseholes in the bar who could be heard throughout. Venue’s fault.
OTHER BELLOWHEAD REVIEWS:
SPIERS & BODEN REVIEWS
See also my short article on Toppermost: Toppermost: Spiers & Boden