Bellowhead can never be accused of making life easy for themselves. They've built up a remarkable following, thanks largely to their stomping shanties and rousing big-band arrangements, but their latest studio album, Broadside, features traditional songs given highly elaborate arrangements, with constant changes of mood and pace. This was the biggest non-festival performance of their career, and they had attracted a near-capacity crowd to the Roundhouse, where the stage was decked out with nautical ropes. The set included almost every new song from Broadside, starting out with some of the most complex. It was a brave move, and for the most part it worked remarkably well, though it sounded at first as if Jon Boden might be swamped by the sheer power of the band on the creepy opener Black Beetle Pies.
Boden is an enthusiastic, declamatory performer, with a vocal style that is best suited to the full-tilt songs, from the old Whiskey Is the Life of Man to the new and rousing Roll the Woodpile Down. Broadside provides a reminder that there are other strong voices in Bellowhead, and the most successful experimental new songs were those in which the band demonstrated their harmony work, as on the deadpan, chugging and suitably spooky treatment of the ghost story The Wife of Usher's Well. It would have been good to hear more from Paul Sartin, a fine singer (and oboe and fiddle player), perhaps on the potentially thoughtful and Brechtian What's the Life of a Man, which ended up as another stomping singalong.
Bellowhead's greatest strength is the multi-instrumental skills of the 11 musicians. Here there was tight brass punctuation work on their daring new treatment of Old Dun Cow, and sections where brass and melodeon were matched against stirring fiddle work from Boden and three other members of the band. The encores included a stomping New York Girls (dedicated to Barack Obama) and ticker-tape swirling across the stage, much to the delight of the crowd.
All those going to see the Bellowhead tour are advised to arrive on time for the opening band, Mama Rosin. A Swiss trio, specialising in an unlikely blend of American Cajun, zydeco, blues and rock, they played melodeon, electric guitar, banjo, harmonica, washboard and drums, and mixed easygoing, rough-and-ready punk energy with impressive musicianship. Singing in French and English, they sounded at times like a frantic folk band, but they ended with a furious swamp rocker, Bon Temps Rouler. Exhilarating.
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