A magnificent eleven-piece band hailing from England, Bellowhead gift traditional folk music with a contemporary edge. Just when you think you’ve pinned down their influences, a new one crops up – but what remains solid throughout their best of album, ‘Pandemonium’, is the band’s tight talent, consisting of guitars, various percussion, brass, and high-ho vocals.
After spending over a decade touring with infectious energy and releasing albums (gaining them not one, not two – not even three – but eight BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), Bellowhead say goodbye with their newly-released ‘Best Of’ album, ‘Pandemonium’. A fine selection of sea shanties, traditional folk tunes and a track that teeters near the edge of prog rock, Bellowhead have picked the crème de la hearty crème of their music, all for your listening pleasure.
Opening the album is none other than ‘New York Girls’, a cheerful track that carefully showcases each instrument, with vocals that at times hints of barefooted 70’s singers. ‘10,000 Miles Away’ follows, another upbeat track that happily indulges in the big-band vibe, with a roaring brass section to complement the loved-up lyrics. ‘Roll Alabama’ is a sea shanty rooted in true American history. Rolling drums, stop-and-start instrumentals and a powerful chorus give ‘Roll Alabama’ the booming military texture you’d expect. On the other hand, ‘Fakenham Fair’ has a fantastical introduction with circus-style trumpets, crashing cymbals and jubilant flute, softening into gently-plucked guitars and fiddle. A love song about a ‘pretty carnival girl’, Bellowhead pull at your heartstrings, edging you to ‘give the wheel of fortune a whirl’.
‘Gosport Nancy’ takes the listener back into the world of historical sea shanties. This one is one again a nod to an actual past – in this case, Gosport town, which apparently had a bit of a reputation for “women’s hospitality” back in the day. Needless to say, sailors would get into port and have a good old time, as this track demonstrates with its get-up-and-dance energy. ‘Betsy Baker’, on the other hand, is much slower, and about falling in love with a girl you met at church. Who said all folk was the same?
The band skirts down a somewhat rockier road for ‘Let Her Run’. Originally a sea shanty (who said all folk was the same?), the rhythmic tone gives way to hard-hitting drums and a darker, Meat Loaf-sounding instrumental. Along the same shanty lines is ‘Whiskey is the Life of Man’, an ode to the golden elixir that has inspired countless songs across the centuries. Although much more upbeat and as Bellowhead-cheerful as you’d expect, one line does talk about whiskey killing the singer’s dad and driving his mother mad, which might seem like a contrast to the happy flute break-down.
Diving head-first into the disturbing is ‘Cold Blows the Wind’, a sombre song about a dead lover who comes back from the grave. ‘One kiss from your lily-white lips/then return back to your grave’. On the other hand, the closing track, ‘London Town’, makes for a playful jig with accordion, trumpets, and easy-going vocals. ‘Pandemonium’ is great for both existing fans and for curious newcomers.
Bellowhead will be doing one last tour in 2016, so keep an eye out for what might easily become one of the best and most uplifting gigs you’ve ever been to. Also, try not to cry when you realise it’s the last time you’ll see them in concert (we know it’s hard).
1. New York Girls
2. 10,000 Miles Away
3 Roll Alabama
4. Fakenham Fair
5. Gosport Nancy
6. Betsy Baker
7. Let Her Run
8. Roll The Woodpile Down
9. Yarmouth Town
10. Prickle-eye Bush
11. Whiskey Is The Life Of Man
12. Cold Blows The Wind
13. London Town