On Touring Bellowhead
In the Bellowhead world, this is the day everyone is “feeling fragile,” to quote my friend Lesley.
Last night, this glorious band sold out their final show at the Oxford Town Hall, the same venue that hosted their first show, 12 years ago. They ended with “Prickle-Eye Bush,” the first song they did in that long-ago show. Many of my friends were there. I was not. But I still could not bring myself to write this yesterday, because it’s like writing an obituary. The demise of Bellowhead is a sad blow. I wore
my Bellowhead Farewell Tour shirt all weekend in homage.
I’ve only been to four Bellowhead gigs–three in one week last month, the other a couple of years ago at the Wickham Festival. My friend Lesley thinks she might have been to 50, but she’s lost count; another woman, Maureen, whom I met on our peregrinations following the tour bus, has been to 84. While I’m distressed about the end of the band, I imagine to them it must be like a divorce, or an amputation. I can’t begin to imagine what it means to the band members themselves.
When Bellowhead announced they were coming to an end last year, it was Lesley who got the gig ball rolling for me. She bought us tickets to the Bristol show on April 16th, the Cardiff show on April 17th, and the Brighton show on April 18th. Louise, a friend of Lesley’s, shared her hotel room in Bristol; I made reservations in Cardiff and at the YHA in Brighton. We hit the road.
Bristol was a standing gig. We got to Colston Hall an hour before the doors opened, but there was still a fair-sized line. Even so, we ended up close to the rail–I was just behind a girl who was madly in love with Sam Sweeney (fiddle, bagpipes) and whose reactions would not have been amiss in a newsreel about the Beatles. After Mawkin had worked everyone’s blood to a boil, Bellowhead took the stage in a haze of blue light for “Amsterdam.” From there, the night became a blur of singing, leaping, laughing. My memories of Wickham might have faded, but I was reminded forcefully of the electricity of Bellowhead live. While on their studio albums the sheer musicianship becomes obvious (listening to Andy Mellon would make any half-way decent trumpeter die with envy, for example), in person, the energy makes for an entirely different reaction. Who can watch Sam Sweeney leap from the raised platform at the back of the
stage while fiddling savagely and not feel the charge? Who can watch the horns jig while belting out a brass line (not an easy thing: I can attest to the pain of the mouthpiece to the teeth for the unpracticed) and not dance, too? The audience at Bristol fed off the energy–“Fine Sally,” “Roll Alabama,” “Roll the Woodpile Down“–singing the lyrics until they were hoarse and returning that energy to the stage. The dancing on the floor was the same kind people do in Times Square for New Year’s Eve: straight up and down, because the floor was packed. Did any of us care? Pffft. Bellowhead can rip out a reel or a jig like “Parson’s Farewell” or “Frog’s Legs and Dragon’s Teeth” and we rabid fans in the pit will leap for an hour or two or three without flagging.
St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, was, in contrast, a stuffy sort of venue. Seated. Seated at Bellowhead? What the hell kind of idea is that? Tickets with assigned seats: Lesley, Maureen, Louise and I didn’t have to rush to line up this time. Our seats were pretty good, center stage, a few rows back (Maureen’s ticket was front row), but they were seats. Fortunately, between the stalls and the balcony, where the sound board was set up, there was space for standing and dancing: Lesley, Louise and I, with the sound guy’s blessing, set up camp there. The setlist was the same as the previous night’s, and we stripped off our shoes and danced like wild women. Every once in a while, especially on the dance tunes, Jon Boden (fiddle, vocals) would encourage the audience to stand and dance, but that was awkward for the people who were unable (the spaces for patrons in wheelchairs were up back, and there was much jockeying to enable those folks to see). We were in no one’s way. We knew all the words. We had plenty of room to reel about, and we did. While the energy level of the audience, compared to Bristol, was somewhat subdued, Lesley, Louise and I were on fire back there. I’m a bit hazy thanks to Louise’s suggestion of Malibu and cranberry at dinner, but I particularly recall a bit of craziness to Rachael McShane’s mad cello in “Trip to Bucharest/The Flight of the Folk Mutants Pt 1 & 2.” I kept waiting for the officious
usher with the flashlight to come berate us (Girl-in-foreign-country-having-just-witnessed-her-first-police-intervention Syndrome), but I think our wild jigging to “March Past” might have frightened him off.
I might have been mildly depressed at Brighton, because it would be my last Bellowhead show ever (okay, damn it, I’ll sniffle here a little bit, nothing to see, just move on). But no one could be depressed at a Bellowhead gig. By now, the blue lighting for “Amsterdam” elicited heavy breathing from me: I’d been trained. The show was on. The eleven were on the stage. Brighton was a standing gig, and we had been second in line at the door of the Dome, and were first on the rail, right there at the stage for the show. By now I probably resembled the girl from the first night, screaming, reaching, though not fainting like the Beatles girls of fifty years ago–because to faint would mean I’d miss part of the gig. And there was singing and dancing to be done! And I was doing it! Loudly! With Lesley and Alison and Louise and Susan and Maureen and thousands of other wild and crazy fans. Every single tune on that playlist was now my favorite. Every clever bit of repartee between songs–especially the slightly naughty intro to “Fine Sally,”
which this night included a sly dig at Paul Sartin (fiddle, oboe)–made me laugh hysterically, though the punch lines were all familiar (for “Cold Blows the Wind“–a love song about a girl who doesn’t recognize boundaries, won’t leave her man alone, always nagging him, even though he’s dead…). Then: the sudden dread when they left the stage, though I knew they’d be back for two encores. Only three songs left. Only three. Imagine my surprise–ecstasy?–when, for the first encore, Paul Sartin dedicated “London Town” to me, as it was my last gig. Me. A song about a prostitute, dedicated to me.
And now Bellowhead are done. I still have the CDs and I can admire the musicianship all I want. But the live energy–the thing which won them “best live act” from the BBC folk awards, repeatedly–is over. I’m so grateful that I was able to swing the trip to see those three shows. I’m so grateful for the synchronicity that placed me on a ramble several years ago with John Jones, in which Benji Kirkpatrick participated…so I had to find out more. I’m so grateful my friend Roger had Bellowhead CDs and left me to listen to them while he mowed his lawn all that time ago. I might not have seen 84 gigs, as Maureen has, but I found Bellowhead in time to see them live. I am so grateful for that. I will miss them.
- Posted in: Music ♦ Travel ♦ Uncategorized
- Tagged: Amsterdam, Andy Mellon, Bellowhead, Benji Kirkpatrick, Brighton Dome, Cold Blows the Wind, Colston Hall, Fine Sally, Frog's Legs and Dragon's Teeth, Jon Boden, London Town, Mawkin, Parson's Farewell, Paul Sartin, Prickle-Eye Bush, Rachael McShane, Roll Alabama, Roll the Woodpile Down, Sam Sweeney, St. David's Hall