LIVE REVIEW: Bellowhead at Royal Albert Hall, London

Bellowhead at Royal Albert Hall, London

In 2010 Bellowhead made history when their third LP, Headonism, became the highest-selling independently released folk album of all time. The eleven-piece (before they disbanded in 2016) then released another two albums, which earned them their highest official chart entries, with both entering the official top 20. 

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Headonism, Bellowhead reassembled for a one-off worldwide concert stream on 5th December 2020. With over 10,000 tickets sold along with copies of the live album that followed, it was clear that fans would not allow the band to retreat back into retirement. With 2022 marking the tenth anniversary of Bellowhead’s fourth album Broadside, an 18-date nationwide tour was announced, which included a show at the Royal Albert Hall.

Support came from Bellowhead’s own Sam Sweeney, who played fiddle-led instrumentals from this latest album, Escape That which has a cover that looks more like the advertisement for an American blockbuster release rather than a folk LP. Nonetheless, folk music is about creating the beautiful sounds and harmonious cacophonies that Sweeney did with his backing band. The sincerity of the joy Sweeney displayed playing live whilst wearing his self-described “Neil Buchannan, Art Attack” multi-coloured jumper elated the Royal Albert Hall.

With a colossal backdrop of the Broadside LP, it was hard to believe that this modern folk classic was already ten years old. The Jon Boden fronted band opened with “Byker Hill,” Broadside’s opener. The fusion of the pure folk arrangements with anthem-arranged guitars showed how aged lyrics and folk tales can maintain their meaning as they are musically reinterpreted for subsequent generations. “The Old Dun Cow” brought the brass to the forefront to add intensity and told the story about how a fire at a public house cannot stop people from having a jolly old time by getting inebriated. The funk and jazz-leaning elements in the last minute of this track still pleasantly surprise without detracting from the fact this is a traditional folk song. The brass sections were also centre-stage with songs including “Betsy Baker”.

As well as playing masterpieces, Bellowhead gave the audience a guided tour of the UK and beyond with songs like the trumpet leading “Roll the Woodpile Down” about the sunshine state Florida. “Black Beetle Pies”, with its mystery, intensity and suspicion, took the audience to the Raglan House in Brixton. With opening xylophones, the audience were told of a benevolent woman whose philanthropic works include feeding the poor with stench-carrying insects. The unnerving soundscape is elevated to a new level on “The Wife of Usher’s Well”, who had to send her sons out to sea to their inevitable deaths. “London Town” later raised people from their seats, and the audience danced in unison as they sang along to the chorus: “I was up to the rigs, Down to the jigs, Up to the rigs of London Town”.

Sam Sweeney’s energy, despite not doing the “couch to 5k” he’d promised himself before this tour, was incredible. His sparkling green jacket transcended the stage as he jumped off every pillar and danced with merriment, all while adroitly playing the fiddle and the pipes. Each member’s sounds perfectly synchronised and harmonised whilst the individual personalities of each band member, including their attire, ensnared the audience. Some opted for period costumes; Boden opted for bright pink jackets, whilst Benji Kirkpatrick rocked out the spring break look. Each member of the band from the outset elatedly toiled and seldom had a moment to be idle. This was the magic of Bellowhead; everyone and every sound mattered, counted and equally touched the audience.  The magic of the late Paul Sartin, who played oboe and violin in Bellowhead, was present with emotive musical arrangements to his pre-recorded vocals.

Whilst fans can accept that Bellowhead have reached their zenith in the studio, they proved at the Royal Albert Hall they are still peaking. The live legacy of Bellowhead is so potent they are likely to attract new fans despite being a disbanded group.

Xsnoize Author
Michael Barron 313 Articles
Michael first began writing whilst studying at university; reviewing the latest releases and live gigs. He has since contributed to the Fortean Times as well as other publications. Michael’s musical tastes vary from Indie to psychedelic, folk and dubstep.

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