A few weeks ago, Spiers & Boden played at the Royal Northern College of Music as part of their final tour as a duo. As ever, it was a heartfelt and hugely-entertaining show. But Bellowhead, the frankly rather unlikely 11-piece folk-jazz-burlesque ensemble they embarked upon ten years ago with a posse of like-minded musical adventurers, has become so popular that even this hard-working pair simply no longer had time to commit to both. So there seemed a certain appropriateness to the fact that they closed that RNCM set with an old favourite of theirs (and mine, you’ll be overjoyed to hear), The Prickle-Eye Bush, the same song with which they opened the very special Tenth Birthday Bash Bellowhead threw for themselves (and a sold-out audience) at the Bridgewater Hall.
It was a joyful occasion for band and audience alike, featuring much silliness with balloons and model airplanes as well as, crucially, a veritable feast of finely-tuned music that convincingly demonstrated just why they’ve been acclaimed as Best Live Act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards an amazing five times.
It also provided a scintillating overview of their brilliant career so far, performed chronologically and complete with marketing-friendly visuals of the relevant album covers – a useful primer for latecomers to their joyful noise and something of a treat for longer-term fans who got to hear a bevy of old favourites given a rollicking rejig. Thus, proceedings kicked off with the aforementioned Prickle-Eye Bush from their first EP, E.P. Onymous (geddit?), before belting interval-wards with some prime selections from Burlesque and Matachin.
I should probably say that, if you haven’t already guessed, I believe Bellowhead are just about the best live band in the land right now and that the only people who don’t think so are those who’ve yet to experience them. As audacious as they are adept, with a frontman in the long tall shape of Jon Boden who is surely well in the running for the most shameless showman around, these musicians – and there are lots of them – give a very convincing impression of being able to play pretty much anything they put their minds to, all in a manner once described by none other than Led Zeppelin as “tight but loose”.
But this was a great gig even by their standards, besting even the, erm, challenging acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall and its overall lifelessness. I could have done without the prancings of the all-female dance troupe who occasionally appeared on stage but, to get in the charitable spirit of the occasion, they certainly weren’t lacking in enthusiasm.
By the time of the second half, we were in the land of the band’s commercial breakthrough, the splendid Hedonism and Broadsides sets, with fiery renditions of the crowd-pleasing likes of Yarmouth Town or Roll The Woodpile Down juxtaposed with the bizarre and unwholesome tale of Black Beetle Pies.
So with parts one to five of their story accounted for with one EP and four albums down, what could possibly constitute part six, as promised on the back-projection? It speaks volumes for the braveness of this most intrepid of bands that they were actually previewing material at the climax of their set from a new album which, as of Saturday night at least, hadn’t even been heard of, let alone heard by any of the audience. Said album, as it turns out, is coming out on the historic Island label (pink labels, memories of Fairport Convention and all) on June 23. It’s called Revival and, if this preview was anything to go by, should be another scorcher. There’s even a Richard and Linda Thompson cover on there, I’m promised.
Despite the jokey protestations on the big screen, that wasn’t quite the end of it, of course. The rambunctious London Town, New York Girls, and Frog’s Legs & Dragon’s Teeth (which sounds a bit like a tour itinerary, don’t you think?) were exciting enough to send the audience reeling into the night, but there were also fireworks and a birthday cake.
Here’s to another ‘decade of decadence’.