Bellowhead let loose a Broadside of old-time ballads

Bellowhead's John Boden. Picture: Paul Heathfield.
Bellowhead's John Boden. Picture: Paul Heathfield.
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A BROADSIDE, as not just Patrick O’Brian fans will know, is a thundering cannon barrage from a man o’war, back in the days of billowing sail and hearts of oak; but it can also mean a single-sheet broadsheet on which ballads were printed and hawked on the street.

The ambiguity is far from lost on Jon Boden, lead singer and fiddler with the unstoppable English folk juggernaut that is Bellowhead.

As a UK tour brings the rumbustious 11-piece to The Ironworks at Inverness on the 20th of this month and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall the following night, it comes armed with its fourth studio album, titled Broadside (Navigator Records). As a production it comes over as arguably even more theatrical than previous releases, capturing their flamboyant brand of what I’m tempted to describe as Hogarthian folk-rock – an image cultivated by the band, whose album sleeves frequently portray them disporting themselves in Regency dissipation.

“The Broadside idea came from our repertoire of songs from a broadside or broadsheet source,” says Boden, “and certainly seemed to apply to our approach to live performance.” I can’t but agree, given the band’s overwhelming stage presence, Boden’s impassioned singing couched amid fiddles, squeezeboxes and a mighty, tuba-driven brass section.

Their performances, says Boden, are starting to attract audiences in costume.

“The thing about being a bit theatrical is that it gives us as well as the audience licence to have fun.”

There’s a certain Drury Lane leaning to the album, drawing considerably on urban folk repertoire, and including a boisterous rendition of The Old Dun Cow, written by Harry Wincott, who, around the turn of the 20th century, wrote for such music hall legends as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno (I can’t help wonder what the composer of Boiled Beef and Carrots and Any Old Iron might have made of the blistering sax break in the Bellowhead version).

“We’re certainly drawn to the more urban side of folk material,” says Boden, “although we’ve done a fair bit of rural stuff as well. But a lot of folk song is urban, and the old broadsheets tended to be urban.”

Thus the album also includes such broadside-sourced material as Betsy Baker and the eccentric workhouse saga of Black Beetle Pies, rubbing shoulders with a wonderfully hearty rendition of the shanty Roll the Woodpile Down. Their version of the old Scots ballad The Wife of Usher’s Well may raise a few eyebrows, delivered as it is almost as a dramatically syncopated chant.

Singing along with such instrumental forces can be quite a challenge, Boden agrees, but it’s never yet lost him his voice. The big band, of course, is only one string to this fiddler’s bow. His partnership with melodeon-player and fellow Bellowheader John Spiers last year celebrated its tenth anniversary with The Works, a fine reprise of some of favourite material; then there was his intriguing Folk Song A Day exercise, during which he recorded and placed online a traditional song for every day of the year.

Boden, who’s 35, also tours with his quintet the Remnant Kings – augmented by two antique wax cylinder recorders which, at one point, has him singing Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust accompanied by his crackly self emanating from one of the cylinders.

He regrets the demise of singing as a social activity. “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve lived in places where it’s still very strong, so I feel I have a responsibility to flag it up to people.”

Promoting it doesn’t sound too much of a chore, mind you: as with Bellowhead, a Remnant Kings show can be quite theatrical, “So it’s nice to break through that hurdle at the end of a gig and go down to the bar and just sing some songs with the audience.”

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