Bellowhead seem to be becoming a bit of an institution these days. Out on a tour which lasts the whole of November, with most dates sold out well in advance and with their tenth anniversary celebrations in the pipeline combined with the fact that mainstays Jon Boden and John Spiers are set to curtail their own duo performances on hold after 2014, it seems that Bellowhead is preparing for world domination.
Support on the tour came in the shape of Sheffield based Neil McSweeney – with Boden (and partner Fay Hield) and Bellowhead colleague Sam Sweeney being similarly northern based alongside the legendary Martin Simpson and Richard Hawley, Sheffield seems to be a bit of a hotspot for musicians – almost like a Sheffield Mafia. And quite an imposing character McSweeney is too – all six foot four and size fourteen feet of him. He joked about taking care whilst negotiating his way with a lively performance around the Bellowhead stage set, resplendent with ropes, rigging and instruments and got away quite lightly with a bang on the head from the microphone and a pair of torn trousers from a particularly ambitious stage move as a result of his unbridled enthusiasm. The theatre thermostat may have been set to winter setting but it was taking things to extremes to create his own air conditioning. Trouser splitting antics aside, it was a set which was a perfect example of the Mudkiss maxim of ‘always see the support band’. Opening solo before being joined by Vera Van Heeringen on guitar/mandolin/double bass and Bellowhead’s Sam Sweeney moonlighting on drums and his more favoured ‘weapon of choice’ the fiddle, his short set was a variety of songs inspired by topics ranging from roads out of Sheffield and the rooftop vistas of Florence played out in a country style. ‘San Miniato’ saw the electric Gibson strapped on and is the sort of song which you could clearly see the influence of Richard Hawley, while ‘We Are Here’ was a full on stomp with an infectious chorus and good time feel. As well as picking up some votes from the Bellowhead audience, he’s well worth a return trip when he plays solo early next year with half a dozen dates already in the diary.
It was only the second date into their November tour but Bellowhead hit the ground running after matinee and evening performances in Bury St Edmunds the day before. It does makes a difference when the show is in a standing venue having witnessed both standing and seated venues in the past. Chatting to Sam Sweeney a couple of weeks earlier on the Full English tour, his facial gestures at the mention of seated venues spoke volumes. There is definitely more of an expectation and anticipation for what Neil McSweeney called “a bit of a do” when the audience is already on it’s collective feet.
With a new tour comes the chance to juggle the setlist and it was a thrill to get the chance to hear some material which is novel and fresh. Kudos to the band then for varying the middle portion of the set to include a couple of the less obvious songs from their recent ‘Broadside’ album in ‘Thousands Or More’ which has a real seasonal feel about it what with Christmas being 44 days away at the time of writing, although the ‘new’ Christmas single ‘Christmas Bells’, due for release on the 1st December wasn’t given a look in – not great marketers these musicians. It was the very dramatic take on ‘The Wife Of Usher’s Well’ which earned the evening’s award for ‘worth the price of admission by itself’. With the stage bathed in deep red the ghostly tale of the death of three sailor sons and their return from the grave was played out in as close to musical theatre as you could get. A classic example of one of those songs which you may have forgotten and then suddenly becomes your favourite song!
Although ‘Broadside’ was the basis for a fair proportion of the set, with ‘Black Beetle Pies’ seeing the band playing musical chairs; percussionist Pete Flood coming front stage (not for the first time this evening it might be added) to play a wooden glockenspiel which looked very much like a piece of his garden fence while Sam Sweeney took over (again) on percussion, it was the old reliable tunes which raised the temperature even further. ‘Haul Away’ – never recorded although a live version does appear on the ‘That’s Proper Folk’ album, probably took the honours on the clapometer while ‘Sloe Gin’ a portion of which Benji Kirkpatrick and some of his mischievous colleagues from the brass section played side stage and the final encore of ‘Frogs Legs And Dragons Teeth’ saw the gentle folk of Warrington jumping and bouncing en masse and ending the gig with that satisfied feeling of mild exhaustion and bathed in a faint glow of perspiration – a sure sign of a successful gig. A first visit to the town saw Warrington well and truly conquered!
Review & photos by Mike Ainscoe