Saturday, 26 January 2008

A glorious noise

There were two cultural events last week, almost unheard of for me! The first, Swan Lake, I have already posted about. The second was a visit to Glasgow for the Celtic Connections festival, where my sons and I saw Bellowhead in concert. Describing themselves as folk-big-band, this 11-piece band combines a splendid range of instruments: fiddle, cello, oboe, trumpet, sousaphone, percussion and more – over twenty instruments in all, according to their website including, apparently, a frying pan, though I failed to spot that from where I was perched (on a table in a section of the auditorium labelled "for our disabled and infirm customers"; the sons stood).

The repertoire is mainly English folk, with some American (for instance, Jordan, and one of the sea-shanties, I think) thrown in, but familiar material, such as The Prickle Eye Bush are transformed. The sound - while almost on the limit for my delicate ears - is tremendously exciting, and it was so invigorating to hear the music I'd been listening to live! The acoustics at the ABC in Glasgow really worked for it – the minute the band started to play it was a revelation; after a rather polite supporting act (Lisa Knapp), you could feel the beat through the floor and feet were instantly tapping. Impossible to stand, or sit, still. With every instrument distinguishable, the complexities of orchestration were immensely satisfying. Their album is called Burlesque, which is hugely appropriate – this is folk meets theatre meets '30s Berlin, in a brassy outburst punctuated by Jon Boden's excellent voice. I was reminded of the thrill I always feel at a theatre orchestra's first notes at the opening of a good musical.

The band's pedigree is pretty solid – Jon Boden and John Spiers also play with Eliza Carthy, as well as constituting Spiers and Boden, while other members have various side projects going on (cellist Rachael McShane is also a step dancer, apparently). And I guess the influences are fairly clear: Steeleye Span, Waterson Carthy, Brass Monkey and, more recently, perhaps 1651's splendid Cast a Bell, veritably Playford for the 21st century, with some world music for good measure. Bellowhead are, in fact, what I always wanted Brass Monkey to be, if I'd only known it! With musicians like these around, I would venture to suggest that the future of folk music looks pretty healthy.


  1. I was once at a concert (classical at that!) where one of the instruments was a plastic bag full of broken glass. There was much speculation amongst the audience as to whether or not it matter whose plastic bag it was!

  2. Love it! I have a sort of Gerald Hoffnung picture of a solemn man in tails with a squelchy supermarket carrier.