One may not necessarily associate folk singers with sci-fi visions of post-apocalyptic futures – although the abundant ditties associated with the old anti-Polaris and CND campaigns – “Ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid” – might possibly count. However, two years on from the celebrated English folk big band Bellowhead harrumphing off into the sunset, their lead singer and fiddler, Jon Boden, is making his first solo tour of Scotland later this month, performing songs from two of his albums which have a dystopian theme.
Boden’s albums Floodplain and the current Afterglow are the first two parts of what he intends to be a trilogy. He confesses to a taste for post-apocalyptic literature “and other stuff set in a kind of regressed future”. He had the idea for his solo albums after listening to a friend’s similarly preoccupied rock concept album: “It occurred to me that it would be really interesting to do a post-apocalyptic album that had more of a folk thing and was more rurally-based.”
The songs on the two albums he’s released so far (he starts writing for the third after the forthcoming tour) tend to be big production jobs, with elaborate scoring. The recipient of no less than 11 BBC Radio 2 Folk awards, Boden is a powerfully expressive singer, and reckons he “can get quite a big sound solo,” using particular guitar tunings and the kick-drum effect of his trusty “stomp box” as well as his fiddle. On the Scottish tour, which kicks off at Milngavie Folk Club on Friday, he’ll be leavening his own songs with traditional material, including some reworkings of favourite Bellowhead numbers.
Bellowhead, of course, took up a major part of his life for a dozen years until it disbanded in 2016, and he does miss it.
“It was a very joyous, exuberant thing and a great honour to be linked with it, although I’m loving performing solo and with my present band, the Remnant Kings,” he says. “But every band you play with is different and Bellowhead isn’t the first I’ve left; I left a few before that and I miss those as well.”
As well as his solo and band work, Boden, who is 41, has composed and performed music for theatre and film, including for the Royal Shakespeare Company, while 2010-11 saw him undertake his year-long Folk Song A Day project, the 365 recordings from which can be accessed on his website and are still tweeted daily.
His preoccupation with song, however, extends beyond individual performance, informing his belief in singing as a significant vehicle for social cohesion. He runs a monthly singing club in his local village pub outside Sheffield: “We’ve tweaked the folk club model a bit, so we have singing sessions rather than floor spots. We have house songs that we sing every month and people who might not come along to a folk club come in simply because it’s the pub and we get to know them.
“Singing can bring a group of people together in the same space in a way you couldn’t do with conversation. You can only have about four people in a conversation but you can easily have 50 people singing.”
There is also monthly singing and playing a-plenty at Edinburgh’s Traverse Bar, where the weekly Soundhouse at the Traverse nights have resumed for the winter. The next, this Monday, features the jazz duo of guitarist Malcolm MacFarlane and tenor saxophonist Gordon McNeil, who will reprise their fine album Silver Lines, with its New
York vibe, which they released early this year. Future gigs include Bostonian singers Alice Howe and Freebo on 1 October, and the indefatigable Old Blind Dogs on 8 October. - JIM GILCHRIST
John Boden’s solo tour includes dates at the Tolbooth, Stirling, on 29 September, the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 30 September and Edinburgh’s Summerhall on 4 October. For full dates, see www.jonboden.com
For details of Soundhouse at the Traverse, www.soundhouse.org.uk