Bellowhead review – folk's big band wave goodbye in style

London Palladium
This was a night of celebration in front of a whooping full house as English trad’s flagship act continue their farewell tour

Stuck in a traffic jam on the M25, Jon Boden and John Spiers came up with the wheeze of a folk big band to fill the Saturday night hoolie slot at festivals. A dozen years, countless festivals, endless awards and five stonking studio albums later, Bellowhead reach the end of a thrilling journey that’s seen them reshape the landscape of British folk music.

Populism and credibility are never easy bedfellows, but this furiously energetic and imaginative 11-piece – with double the instrumentation, from oboe to bagpipes – have, with precious few changes in personnel, combined instrumental virtuosity with jumping choruses and outrageous showmanship to fulfil their role as English trad music’s flagship with integrity and wit.

Integrity and wit … Bellowhead are separating after a dozen years together.
Integrity and wit … Bellowhead are separating after a dozen years together. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Even now, there’s something deliciously surreal about watching a hugely accomplished brass section schooled in jazz – including Ed Neuhauser wielding an ungainly helicon above his head – dancing like dervishes as they blast into another manic tune set. There are shades of Spike Jones amid the brutally mangled shanty Little Sally Racket, and it’s impossible to suppress a smile as ringleader-in-chief Boden rips off his jacket to reveal a glittery silver waistcoat.

None of which would count for anything if the music didn’t stack up, but from their opening salvo with Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam to the climactic closing charge of New York Girls, Frogs’ Legs and Dragons’ Teeth, and – revisiting the first song they performed together – Prickle-Eye Bush, this was a night of triumph and celebration, in front of a whooping, dancing, adoring full house.

The old maxim “leave them wanting more” has never been truer. Roll on the reunion tour.

  • The Bellowhead farewell tour continues at Northampton Derngate (26 April), Southampton Guildhall (27), Southend Cliffs Pavilion (28), Norwich Open (29), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (30), Oxford Town Hall (1May). All sold out.


Colin Irwin

The GuardianTramp

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