On the Session after Bellowhead at Bristol
Jon Boden said at one point during the Bristol Bellowhead show that there might be live music happening at the Old Vic, with some people. Which explains the huge line at the theatre door around 11–a line which stretched down King Street toward the still-noisy pubs, around a corner. Lesley, Louise and I joined it, but not for long–as soon as Louise saw John Spiers with his melodeon case slung over his back, she latched onto him (with his consent), and the three of us formed a train, trailing behind. I, of course, was the caboose.
That’s how we managed to find floor space close to the single table in the bar, the table around which the musicians seated themselves as they appeared. Not just John Spiers, but Jon Boden, Paul Sartin, Sam Sweeney, and Benji Kirkpatrick (all direct from their stage turn with Bellowhead), and then Nick Cooke and David Delarre (of Mawkin), as well as various and sundry musical friends and admirers of the band members. We sat, the better to enable the people behind us to see; but that was short-lived: first Lesley got to
her feet, then Louise, and when I realized I could no longer feel my feet, it was too late, and I staggered up like a drunkard.
But I was fascinated. I had never been to an after-show session. This might have something to do with the company I tend to keep here at home: musical acts here just don’t have them. At least not for the most part. Time after a show where the musicians we’ve paid scads of money to see in concert sit around a table in a bar and play and sing with us, the adoring fans? For free? Playing folk songs many, if not all, in attendance know? That, too, could be the other reason why this doesn’t happen here: there simply isn’t the thriving tradition of old songs everyone knows. (When “old songs” means songs from the 70’s and 80’s–the 1970’s and 80’s–you know there’s a bit of a difference.)
So here were the musical geniuses I’d traveled 3600 miles to see, seated within touching distance of me, spinning out reels and jigs they all seemed to know; and gloriously, if the players didn’t know a tune someone had started, they stared at that someone’s hands, to read the fingerings and the chord progressions, and so figured the tunes out. I got to witness magnificent musicianship firsthand. Breathtaking. When someone would break into song, it would invariably be a folk song with the kind of refrain people could pick up at once, and so I was able to join in quickly. Yes, kids, I was singing with Bellowhead.
At one point, Paul Sartin, at the table to my left, spotted a woman he knew and semaphored: Do you have your instrument? She didn’t, so he stood, leaned over the table, and handed her his fiddle and bow. Immediately, Jon Boden, seated at the table to my right, stood, leaned across, and handed Paul Sartin his fiddle and bow. Everyone laughed, and laughed again as Jon Boden, once again seated, pulled a second fiddle from beneath the table and resumed his playing.
And there were many such laughs, as at the point where, after the drink had been flowing
for quite some time and the crowds had thinned out somewhat, Nick Cooke leapt up, black kerchiefs in hand, and proceeded to Morris dance around the table. The musicians, of course, kept up the tune until he could no longer dance…because Morris dancing itself requires much bounce and leap, and Morris dancing in a large, well-oiled crowd is downright exhausting.
The musicians kept it up for hours; as the next night’s show was in Cardiff, only a bit more than an hour away by tour bus, the members of Bellowhead and Mawkin didn’t have to rush away. I don’t know the titles of any of the pieces they played, so I can’t recommend people look them up. Oh, except one. Midway through the late night, when the musicians had momentarily run out of ideas for the next piece, John Spiers lifted his melodeon and launched into “Take on Me” by a-ha. That, ladies and gentlemen, was the evening for me: Disco-folk on the melodeon. And everyone knew the words.