Bellowhead

Having previously thought of ‘Folk’ as being synonymous with quant country fairs, even in its most modern reinvention a genre that lends itself to being played in a natural setting (such as our very own Moseley folk festival). I was surprised and pleased to learn that a whole weekend devoted to folk, was being held at Birmingham’s Town Hall. ‘English Originals’ a ‘mini’ folk festival, over a weekend in May featured the likes of folk greats Scott Mathews, Beth Orton and new to the scene Graham Coxon. I went for the Sunday helping, with performances from Jackie Oates and the band they call Bellowhead.

Jackie Oates

First on were Jackie Oates. A quintessentially English folk artist whose tales are to a large part inspired by country life. At first Miss Oates’ style I might have thought at odds with the epic black backdrop of the town halls stage, and the dramatic and ornate surroundings beyond. Yet the stillness of this space made for a pleasing setting in which to house the purity of her singing style.

In fact I was stunned by the voice on her opening number “The Miller and his three sons”. The sort of voice that stops a crowd in its tracks. A vocal ability in which you find yourself not only listening to the voice itself, but the surrounding silence that it inevitably instills.

Jackie Oates

On the next song Oates and her accompanying band of three, told tales that seemed to fill the dark space with fields of flowers and scenes akin to paintings by Constable. As this Devon girl put it she was imbuing her rendition on “Heavenly month of May” with a ‘heavy layer of chintz’, with which to soften the edges of a rather erotic tale.

Jackie Oates Jackie Oates

The songs played here are from Miss Oates coming of age album ‘Hyperboreans’ released in 2009. The numbers played encompass traditional folk ditties, Celidhs and a surprising rendition of The Sugar Cubes “Birthday”. The instrumentation here though a concoction that is undeniably ‘folk’ – accordion, acoustic guitar, and cello and miss Oates on the violin as well as lead vocal. Where Bjork’s version was all about the gymnastic prowess of delivery here it is about the purity of Miss Oates’ voice, and therefore a much simpler rendition which cuts clear to the beauty of the song’s lyrics.

Bellowhead

If Jackie Oates this evening was a field of May flowers, then the next act – Bellowhead – must surely be the bustling and industrial excitement of the city. An eleven piece act, nine men and two women whose feel is as a whole is a much more masculine one than Miss Oates’ ensemble. This small machine – oh sorry – should I say mini-sized orchestra, is unlike any other set-up you will have seen before. Made up of bassoon and trumpet and drums and accordion and trombone – phew! You get the picture! Their engines are oiled by front man and master puppeteer Jon Boden.

Bellowhead Bellowhead

Boden is a sort of musical ringmaster slightly disheveled yet somewhat smart too, arms raised-up drawing in the swaying audience before him, yet appearing to conduct the band behind him all at once. Their more than competent leader cuts quite a dramatic figure standing there before us. Black suit, scuffed trainers, red tie – a contradiction in terms through-and-through. As I watch him sing and play his fiddle in a rousing display he appears to conduct, yet at other times I wonder if it is the band who are conducting him. Either way he is an intriguing and enthralling front man.

Bellowhead Bellowhead

Songs from their newly released album “Hedonism” are mainly played out on stage tonight, and as I said, it’s all about tales of much more frenetic scenes than Jackie Oates’ type of folk. With tunes such as “New York Gives”, “The Hand Weaver And The Factory Maid” and “Flight to Bucharest”.

The influences are broad here, not just pure ‘folk’, but the sounds of brass bands being played at the seaside, New Orleans Jazz, and even some seventies funk thrown in for good measure (I’m sure I heard the theme tune to Shaft in there somewhere!).

Bellowhead Bellowhead

If I could compare this band to another I would have said Birmingham’s very own ‘The Destroyers’, a similar sized troupe (14 members) who on the whole bring in a slightly more eastern flavour to their mix. Yet equally eclectic in their influences Bellowhead stay this side of the Kremlin, and it is clear to see the diverse and fascinating musical knowledge that this band weave into their instrumentation. To add to this although Bellowhead are at times seemingly chaotic in their delivery, do not be deceived – as this is a type of controlled chaos that can only be created by a group fully in charge of their instruments and who work in perfect synchronicity.

Bellowhead

The evening builds to a crescendo with dramatic displays of leaping and jumping from some of the wind instrumentalists and an increasing feverish performance from their lead man. There is definitely something theatrical about the performance and it would not surprise me if Jon Boden had been trained for acting on the stage at some point.

Bellowhead

I enjoyed Bellowhead immensely and would recommend them to others as I feel they have a very wide appeal indeed. Having said that, they remain full of integrity to their own individualistic style.

Bellowhead

It was easy for me to see why the two artists I saw this evening deserve the accolades they have received – Jackie Oates winning the Horizon Award in 2009 (amongst many other nominations she’s received), and Bellowhead a multitude of folk awards including the BBC radio 2 Folk awards in 2010. These two artists may be at extreme ends of the folk spectrum, yet they’re unique and deserving of great praise in their own right.

Bellowhead Bellowhead

Words by Sara Reynolds.
Photos by Wayne Fox, email me.

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