The Coal Exchange | 12.11.12
With the success of bands such as Mumford and Sons bringing folk music into the popular sphere, it is a wonder that Bellowhead are not better known. Winners of the BBC Folk award for best live band two years running and with their latest album Broadside reaching 16 in the UK album charts and number one in the Indie chart, they are clearly doing something right. When people think of folk it is either a band such as Mumford singing catchy pop songs with the occasional banjo, or a bunch of old men in pubs with beards. Bellowhead are another kettle of fish, a mighty eleven piece that base their music on traditional folk songs, but in ways that make them anything but traditional.
It is not often that the support band alone is worth the face value of the ticket, but the crazy Swiss French three piece, Mama Rosin, turned out to be one of the best musical discoveries I have made in a while. With heavy rock style guitar, a drum kit played with maracas instead of drumsticks and the happiest looking melodeon player they thumped out gritty rock chords with a folk tinge.
Well and truly warmed up the crowd welcomed the main act to the stage. Arriving in ones and twos the band started with xylophone and melodeon and built in intensity, before the lead singer, John Bodens, arrived, singing down a megaphone. This created the perfect sinister atmosphere for their first number Black Beetle Pies, a true story about a woman who made a living selling pies full of beetles and her old underwear (with an entrepreneurial flair they said they found commendable). The band delivered with every number, be it a song (many of which are about drinking), or their tunes which force you to jig along. Those who didn’t dance still looked as though they were enjoying themselves, one old man didn’t dance but stood with a delighted smile on his face the whole time.
Watching Bellowhead is never boring; every one of the band is constantly doing something interesting. The four strong brass section pack a punch and when they aren’t playing they dance almost as much as the crowd. The sax player even pulled out the old ‘playing-two-saxophones-at-once’ trick to great effect in a disco like solo. Morris dancing was also included with the band hop stepping in time… they somehow managed to make it very cool. Most of the musicians prove to be multi-instrumentalists playing everything from violins, banjos, guitars, tin whistles, bagpipes cellos, drum kit, melodeons and mandolins to oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, crisp packets, tins of spoons, kazoos and even a helicon (a tuba like thing that plays the bass lines of the band). When they finish their set I feel that I could happily go through the whole gig again despite all the aches and pains my over-danced body is experiencing. Bellowhead are deserving of their awards for best live band and they remain one of the greatest acts I have ever seen live. If you get an opportunity to see them, be you a folk music fan or not, go. You may go in a sceptic but you will leave wondering whether Cardiff has a Morris dancing club you can join (for those interested: it does).