There’s something about a Bellowhead concert that brings to mind a pagan ritual from back in our distant past. There’s nothing particularly sinister or Wicker Man about it – it’s more a case of the sheer joy and abandon this uniquely talented band seem to inspire in their audience. Grown men bounce around beaming from ear to ear to jaunty jigs, while others tap their feet politely, but enthusiastically while propped up against the bar. Spilt drinks and accidental collisions are shrugged off with a smile, and strangers chat cheerfully about their favourite songs. Basically, Bellowhead are a bizarre but highly effective form of legal, musical high.
Over a year since their latest album Hedonism, their set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire differed little from the same show last November – not that anyone seemed to mind. Kicking off with the instantly infectious Norfolk tune Yarmouth Town, they followed up in quick succession with the similarly upbeat Whiskey Is The Life Of Man and Broomfield Hill, ensuring within the first ten minutes that the crowd were suitably energised.
The mood changed briefly with dramatic, slow-building rendition of Scott Walker‘s epic Amsterdam, which allowed singer Jon Boden’s occasionally reedy tenor to really soar. But before long the 20-plus strong ensemble were back up to full, euphoric volume on a wonderfully funky Fire Marengo, complete with swathes of wah-wah guitar. Having already long since embraced genres as diverse as jazz, hip-hop and punk in their sound, there seems no limit to Bellowhead’s dynamic redefining of English traditional music as we know it.
The band themselves, as usual, looked like they were enjoying every minute of it, even taking a stab at Morris dancing on the rapturously received Sloe Gin – perhaps Bellowhead’s most irresistibly danceable tune of all. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Boden, who bantered easily with the crowd and his cohorts alike throughout while reminding us all what an assured, natural performer he is. On Flash Company, another jewel from the group’s first and best album Burlesque, he stood at the front of the stage with his arms outstretched, commanding the arena like some kind of folk messiah.
After finishing their set proper with New York Girls, it was no surprise when Bellowhead responded to the crowd’s plea for more with a two song encore, sending us off with one more of their old favourites, Frog’s Legs and Dragon’s Teeth. As their playing reached a rapturous crescendo, thousands of pieces of paper were flung simultaneously in the air in a scene recalling the atmosphere at a Latin American football match.
The biggest question Bellowhead have to answer is where they go from here. With a superb live repertoire that has made them a force to be reckoned with on the concert and festival circuit, there’s little doubt they’ll remain one of the best nights out in town for the foreseeable future. But as musicians and recording artists, is there the chance they may eventually become stale and predictable? Only time will tell.