15th February 2013
Only making notes from memory and a semi-scribble (BBP, Cold, Ear daughter) on the back of the ticket, and the instrumentals were harder to note. I know they did The Dockside Rant / Sailing On The Tide (and it was magnificent) but I’m not sure at which point.
Black Beetle Pie
10,000 Miles Away
Cold Blows The Wind
Parson’s Farewell (inst)
What’s The Life Of A Man?
Cross Eyed and Chinless (inst)
Roll The Woodpile Down
Hopkinson’s Favourite (inst)
Old Dun Cow
Thousands Or More
The Dockside Rant / Sailing On The Tide (? Position?)
The Wife of Usher’s Well
Whisky Is The Life Of A Man
Sloe Gin (? Position?)
New York Girls
Frogs Legs (? Position ?)
CORRECTIONS ON THE INSTRUMENTALS (or anything) VERY WELCOME
Two tickets: Spot the difference. And it’s not the logo.
Bellowhead are a band of many facets. Before I even start on the rest of this review, I’ve not seen anyone put more energy into the second half of a show, nor go down better at the venue. i.e. they went down a storm. No wonder, they have “five best live band” awards. They’re also the band that comes first on my iTunes playlists for the last few months.
Their natural milieu has perhaps been festivals, and standing venues and here they are in a classical concert hall, all eleven of them, They play twenty instruments between them. Six of them sing. They all get a turn at introducing a song too. The stage set was theatrical – a billowing sail and rigging. The lighting was state-of-the-art LED and ran to a well-constructed plot. They even started on time … well, depending whether you had a 7.30 ticket like me and the majority, or an 8 pm ticket like my companion who decided to come to this show after I’d already booked mine. And it was a sell-out well before the concert. Poole Arts Centre has a theatre starting at 7.45 and tries to stagger times in the adjacent concert hall. They went earlier (7.30) on bookings initially. The band went later, reflected on later tickets (8.00).
A couple of people had told me they’d seen them too often. There’s a division in fans too. Bands fall in three schools: (a) They’re better live; (b) They’re able to reproduce albums exactly live (a hard trick, but Supertramp could do it) or (c) They’re better on recordings. You can go back years. The Beatles at the BBC is not as good as any Beatles album. The early stuff on The Kinks at the BBC is even better than the albums. Raucousness suited The Kinks.
Some say the Bellowhead recordings are over-produced and “too careful” losing the wildness, others say, not at all, they’re “messier” live rather than better. The vast majority of the Poole audience at this show would vote for “they’re better live.” It is a question that runs through your head watching them.
I’m actually in the “definitely better on album” for the ballads, “better live” for instrumentals and more raucous stuff school. I had six songs on my “I really want to hear list …” and they only did two of them, Betsy Baker, then New York Girls, as the closing number. The other ones I’d hoped for were Fakenham Fair, I Drew My Ship Across The Harbour, Cholera Camp and Broomfield Hill. They don’t do them often.
Jon Boden is a subtle and expressive singer. I’d quote the way he sings “my eyes nearly popped out of my head” from Fakenham Fair as an example of narrative brilliance in storytelling in song. I could name two dozen more examples. That side gets lost in the excitement of the live concert.
We saw The Winter’s Tale at Stratford the day before, (linked here) tor which Jon Boden had done all the music, ranging from folkie to cinematically majestic. I’d have bought a soundtrack to that too. The concession stand didn’t have his solo stuff or Boden & Spiers, which I’d been hoping to buy.
The show was in two halves, both leaning heavily to their latest album, Broadside. (Link to my review of the album). Very few bands will do this, mainly because they can’t be arsed to learn everything from the new album, so they’ll choose four or five and never do the others live, and a couple of years and albums later those five will have solidified to three. I reckon they did all of Broadside or all bar one. I have no note of Go My Way, and I’ve been listening to the album so much, I can’t be sure whether they did it or not. It might have been in the extended section with Haul Away. If not, it was the only one they didn’t do.
Looking at the DVDs Hedonism Tour and Broadside Tour it looks as if this is their standard policy. They opened with Black Beetle Pie. It’s a strange song, fitting in mood with the Jacques Brel / Kurt Weill aspect of their work … they did Brel’s Amsterdam in the second half. Black Beetle Pie is impressive but harsh on the ear and less lovable than more melodic things. But it is impressive and startling. I can see why it came first … it’s hard to fit it between other songs. After concerts I tend to wake up with a song going through my head. This time it was 10,000 Miles Away, which even 16 hours or so later keeps running. A personal favourite for the future then, though one I wouldn’t have predicted.
The second half rapidly built up a head of steam and flat out brilliant energy that they sustained right to the end. You know they knew what they were doing building momentum, and that there was no room for a gentle ballad in there.
My criticism, which mainly applies to the first half, was the sound mixing on vocals. I’ve seen jazz, folk, rock and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra all get a good sound here, and because it is a classical concert hall, the acoustic is live. You can hear unamplified classical stuff perfectly. There was too much echo on Jon Boden’s mic, making it sound like an aircraft hangar. I admit I was in row E, extreme stage right, dominated by one speaker and almost “behind” the hanging PA speaker, but my companion in Row S, also at the same extreme side also said “Why was it echoing like that?” It could be just angle and position. All the mics echoed, but his echoed most. It didn’t matter at all in the second half, when they were going flat out, and maybe the echo enhanced it and that was how he wanted it. It didn’t suit the subtle stuff and masked the lyrics The instrumental balance was not badly affected though, and they did a higher percentage of instrumentals than on record, and every one of them brought the house down. BUT … I’d love to hear them with vocal sound mix at the very highest level: Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon.
There is a natural degree of inherent “messiness” in their sound. First off, . it’s particularly hard to mix sound when you have mainly non-electric instruments being amplified, and when you have things like trombone, trumpet, tuba and drums which are intrinsically loud even unamplified, so that other mics will pick them up, interfering with separation. And there are a lot of them, and they’re playing with massive energy and enthusiasm … percussion, helicon (think ‘tuba’), trumpet, sax, guitar / mandolin, cello, two violinists, one doubling on clarinet the other on bagpipes, accordion. Jon Boden plays stupendous fiddle himself as well as penny whistle and guitar. Two of Bellowhead’s unusual verging on unique aspects, are a drummer who plays standing-up, and tuba instead of bass. That means no bass drum, no bass guitar or double bass, which means that they use helicon and trombone and cello to hold the bottom. This necessarily elides the sound. A bass drum and / or bass player would give it more rhythmic precision (which they get from higher up with the fiddles), but I think they’d then lose the wildness that is so important in their act. And in the second half it really is wild fiddling, and jumping and dancing. At one point the whole string section were doing Riverdance high-pedalling leaps while playing. The horn section danced around a great deal. It is a fantastic show. The musical talent on display is staggering, and the arrangements, historical knowledge, vocals, stage presence and fiddle place Jon Boden right at the forefront of British artists, whether touring or not.
Best British live act currently? They probably are.