How does one follow the biggest selling independently-released traditional folk record ever? 2010′s Hedonism brought Bellowhead’s rollocking, riotous music to a wider audience, launching a tour that took in Latitude and Glastonbury. Their latest effort Broadside’s name is half inspired by nautical cannonfire, half by the name of a traditional songsheet by which old folk tunes were passed down. The most heavily-produced Bellowhead record yet, it might not eclipse Hedonism, but it certainly goes off with a bang.
Byker Hill, a grandiose reworking of a Northumbrian mining song, is a strident, punchy opening, and Jon Boden and his troupe almost convince us that they, too, are “collier lads for evermore.” Elsewhere, Roll The Woodpile Down is a stand-out gem. Gorgeous, rich string harmonies pan out into an epic, almost cinematic breadth. Yet just in case the usually irreverent crew seemed to be dwelling too long on the beautiful, grotesque Black Beetle Pies lurches into view. Hearing Boden et al shouting the title of the track over and over with increasing earnest over a melee of glockenspiel and clarinet is just the right side of daft; Bellowhead are still in touch with the murkier side of folk.
The brass section are certainly on form. Sultry and subversive in The Old Dun Cow, Justin Thurgur’s trombone and Ed Neuhauser’s helicon (think a gigantic tuba wrapped over the player’s shoulder) add pomp to the regal Go My Way and spin What’s The Life Of Man? in unexpected directions.
Bellowhead have a knack for collecting folk tunes and forging them into something fresh. Broadside takes that art to another level. Recorded in the legendary Rockfield Studios in Wales under the watchful eye of John Leckie, the album has a much more contemporary feel. No less fire, but a much more polished studio sound than Bellowhead’s faithful will be used to. Betsy Baker, a classic ballad of unrequited love, is a case in point. High string stabs and a chorus of aah-ing turns a folk musician’s staple into something approaching a Take That comeback single – and it’s no bad thing. Meanwhile, The Wife of Usher’s Well, an unnerving number with one beat in the bar for each of the 11 band members, is powerful enough to merit the band’s billing as rock stars of folk.
In their time, Bellowhead have rehashed the theme tunes of The Simpsons and The Archers, but the Bellow-faithful will be even more excited by a gleefully subversive version of Lillibulero, which plasters classic Jon Boden cheek all over Henry Purcell’s classic tune.
Broadside is an apt description of an explosive album. Bellowhead are folk musicians in a very traditional sense, collecting tunes and making them their own in a raucous, danceable style. Yet as Broadside demonstrates, more strongly than anything that’s come before, their contemporary influences are anything but orthodox, and will leave purists spluttering and gig-goers jigging in equal measure.