A common complaint made by comedians is that people expect them to be funny even when they’re not performing comedy. Forging a career out of making an audience laugh means that it can be a mission to be taken seriously when you want to do something serious – especially if you plan to remain within the judgmental gaze of the public eye.
Adrian Edmondson has more or less resigned from comedy now, having made the brave decision to concentrate on his band – and the boldness of this career change is all the more apparent when the nature of that band is considered. The Bad Shepherds are a folk band who use traditional instruments – the mandolin, the fiddle, the uilleann pipes – to cover punk and new wave songs. The thing is, if you read that sentence without having heard any of The Bad Shepherds’ music, it sounds pretty funny – especially if the first thing that comes to find when you hear the name Adrian Edmondson is a goofy bloke kneeing Rik Mayall in the bollocks.
But this is not something in the same vein as Weird Al Yankovic reinterpreting pop hits on an accordion, or Richard Cheese putting a lounge spin on hip hop and metal songs. That’s not to say that Weird Al and Richard Cheese don’t obviously have a clear love for the songs they cover, but The Bad Shepherds come across as more sincere and heartfelt.
That’s more the case than ever on their third album, Mud, Blood & Beer. By opening with their take on Madness’ Our House they might seem to be setting themselves up for something light-hearted, but the song is actually far more sentimental and moving in its folk incarnation. It’s proof that folk music isn’t just about painting pastoral scenes from the 18th century – it’s equally as effective when it comes to evoking working class domesticity from the early 1980s.
There is a kind of black comedy in hearing pipes and fiddle being woven around The Adverts’ controversial Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, but for the most part, the tone is wistful. Going Underground is more muted than The Jam’s original, and as such it’s darker. Ian Dury’s What A Waste is stripped of its levity, with haunting pipes ringing out throughout, and Shipbuilding is as poignant as either Elvis Costello’s or Robert Wyatt’s versions.
A clear sign that The Bad Shepherds want to be taken more seriously – or at least that they are taking themselves more seriously – is the inclusion of two original songs, though as it turns out they are lighter in tone than anything else that’s included here. Title track Mud, Blood & Beer is a celebration of playing festivals, and while some of its lyrics are trite as anything, there is still something quite sweet about it. Off To The Beer Tent, judging by its title, is another festival derived song. This one is an instrumental, which builds from a gentle start to a joyous dance of lilting fiddle and reeling pipes.
The Bad Shepherds’ own compositions stand up against the well-known covers, and all in all, this is a very well curated album. The fact that the covers lend themselves so well to reinterpretation by a folk band is testament to the strength of the songs beneath the arrangements, and the skill and musicianship of The Bad Shepherds is continually apparent. This feels like a real coming of age for Edmondson’s group. “I chose to play the fool in a three piece band,” he sings on What A Waste, slightly twisting the original lyrics. He might be best known for playing the fool, but he’s not sounding so foolish here.