When Charles Dickens reported “There was an abundance of lights, and there was music… the whole building looked to me as if it were learning to swim,” he was not describing a Bellowhead gig, rather David Copperfield’s first experience of getting drunk. The appropriateness to the former, however, is not incidental. Bellowhead’s music oozes around you in the live arena, all-engrossing, exhilarating, a bit queasy.
There are, as most readers will likely be aware, a lot of them in the band. Stage left, the four-piece brass section are huddled into their own corner, like the conspirators in a government or the misfits at a party. The ones you suspect are having the best time. Stage right are the strings – two violins, cello – the richest meatiest bits in most arrangements. Behind the drum kit is Pete Flood. My best tip at a Bellowhead gig: watch Pete Flood, he’ll probably hit, squeeze or shake something unusual at some point. And then splayed downstage like a Black Jack trick: accordionist John Spiers, guitarist Benji Kirkpatrick and our master of ceremonies, rocking out like he’s in The Hives, lead singer Jon Boden.
Together they blast through the entirety of new album Broadside, the launch of which they celebrate tonight, along with a few old favourites. Each is its own reward, from the ones the band can’t have played much yet – there’s proper concentration on all their faces as they remember the hard bits of ‘Lillibulero’ – to classics like ‘Whiskey is the Life of Man’, so easily belted out you could imagine the whole thing spontaneously erupting out of some tavern brawl. And there’s still time to marvel at those little details – all the nuts and bolts of actually making the sounds you become so used to on the records.
But almost as fascinating nowadays is all that flotsam and jetsam that drifts along with them at a gig like this. There are fans, family, people dressed as pirates – but also label people, camera people, pesky reviewing people. Bellowhead have worn their flirtation with mass advertising culture pretty well so far – their London billboards are a happy, handsome novelty – but there are no doubt some old hands who’d wince at the mention of iTunes exclusives at a folk gig. Yet this, I suppose, is what pays for the free ‘Black Beetle Pie’ and shot of rum we each enjoy as the event’s appetisers. After all, it’s the music that counts and – like the tipple – it’s as decadent and intoxicating as ever.
words: Tom Moyser
photo: Michael Somerville