Thursday, 5 May 2016

A Farewell To The Wonderful Bellowhead... Oxford City Hall, 1st May 2016

Emotions were running high throughout the three weeks leading up to Bellowhead’s final performance on May 1st. Fans and folkies from up and down the country were entering a state of mourning, and if Twitter is any indication no one more so than the band themselves. “I might need a bit of help getting through this one”, Sam Sweeney (violin, bagpipes) posted at the penultimate show, with Rachael McShane (cello, violin) adding that she was “going to miss Bellowhead so much”. Almost a year previously, like so many others, I had woken up early in time to nab a ticket the moment they went on sale, anticipating the high demand. The first time, at the mailing-list presale, I was unsuccessful, and the tickets sold out before I had even entered my card information; the second time around, I clicked the little “buy” button… and met an order confirmation form on the other side! I was in with a ticket to possibly the only folk event of 2016 with a higher demand-to-capacity ratio than the after-party of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Oxford City Hall was the chosen venue: a fitting choice as the first venue the band ever played in twelve years ago, with a capacity of a mere 700 people for the last ever show – less than half of what some of the other sold out venues on the tour held. We decided to make a day of it, spending the afternoon before the show touring some of our favourite Oxford pubs. By 16:30 as we walked past on route from St Aldates to the Turf Tavern, the queue outside the front door had already reached the nearest street corner; we recognised some familiar faces from previous shows and Twitter conversations among those waiting, and knew we were in for something rather special. As we joined the queue ourselves about 30 minutes before doors opened the line was already past the stage door and nearly at The Bear pub; we began to move and John Spiers (melodeon) came rushing past, and was quickly swamped by fans wanting one last photo. I began to feel sorry for the man: I had been to ten Bellowhead shows previously and had never quite seen anything as hectic as this.

Once inside the auditorium, I was pleased to note that Oxford City Hall has finally installed a bar; in previous shows I had attended there we had to wait until intervals and rush to St Aldates Tavern across the road for a mere drink. The hall began to fill up rapidly, and then at exactly 20:00, the lights dimmed and Mawkin jumped over the back risers to take the stage. I think most fans who had seen Bellowhead before this tour would agree with me that the management had outdone itself with its choice of support act: Mawkin were incredible. From the first chorus of I Can Hew all the way until the Merry Mawkin tune set they had most of the audience clapping and jumping along, a feat rarely seen from support acts. The energy in the room was beyond measure; it was clear from the offset that this was an audience who wanted to dance until they could dance no more.

After Mawkin’s half-hour on the stage they departed to a roar of applause, and the realisation among the audience began to set in: it was nearly time for the end. The interval seemed to fly by in a blur before the lights dimmed once again, and Bellowhead walked onto the stage. Every band member was met with equal applause and cheers, a matter that did not seem lost on the band; the emotion displayed by several of the members (I will not mention names without permission, out of respect for them) demonstrated that the last few moments backstage must have been some of the most difficult ones they had gone through together, before the string section opened with the opening bars of Jacque Brel’s Amsterdam. Rare as it is for the band to play a cover, it worked well as an opener; as well as an indication to the crowd that the show would have a note of lamentation on top of the regular Bellowhead experience, before the stage burst into life with Roll Alabama.

The first tune set was announced next, the combo of Hudson’s Hornpipe and Parson’s Farewell, which was met with similar enthusiasm from the crowd. At this point my heart began to sink a bit: having seen the band a week previously in Reading, I noticed that they were playing the exact same setlist. As the last performance ever, I had rather hoped that they would pull out something special and make it unique, even if not “the same setlist as the first show but backwards”, as Spiers had jokingly suggested to me last year. After all, everyone knows the band members’ own favourite songs from their interview with The Guardian newspaper last year (, and some of those were notably absent from the very Hedonism-centric setlist given on this tour. Nevertheless, this was to be the only disappointment through the rest of the evening.

As Betsy Baker began next, Jon Boden (vocals, violin) began a slow rhythmic clapping to get the
audience clapping along, but it felt entirely unnecessary. So far the crowd had gleefully clapped along to every single song, and showed no signs of slowing down with the next few either. Notably, other than a few sullen faces the band had neglected to mention that there was anything unusual about this show throughout the first part of the evening. That is, until Brendan Kelly (saxophone, clarinet) began his introduction to Fine Sally. Brendan’s introducing has become somewhat legendary among Bellowhead concert goers, as the one part of the show that guarantees two things: firstly that the speech will always be different to the last one, and secondly that the entire audience (and band!) will be in fits of laughter by the end. Tonight’s was no different, with the added comment of the occasion. “But let’s not mention that, you’ll have us all blubbing up,” he noted, “it’s just as difficult for us as it is for you.” On that note, I would have to disagree with him though: I’m sure it was more difficult for the band than the crowd. The story of lost love and jealous doctors continued, with the appreciated political comment of the NHS strikes, before the hall once again burst into life for the song.

Following this was McShane’s own Trip to Bucharest, a tune in a 6/8 time signature which the audience seemed to be having a bit of difficulty getting the hang of whilst clapping along. To their credit, this did not throw the band out of time but, sensing danger, Pete Flood (percussion) managed to get everyone in the crowd together and in the right time signature before his instruments came in. After all of the jumping and dancing so far, it was pleasant to have a bit of a break with the calmer addition of Captain Wedderburn; though this did seem to open up the performance to other emotions as well. Through the livelier songs the band seemingly had little chance to stop and reflect, but as the slower lament started a few teary faces could be seen on stage; with one band member even hesitating before playing his part later on in the song, instead taking a much needed moment to regain composure. As the song finished, Paul (Sartin: oboe, violin) and Sam could be seen heartily embracing each other at the side of the stage.

All sorry feelings were forgotten as we reached the halfway point of the show, however, with Ed Neuhauser’s riveting helicon solo to introduce the sea shanty Fire Marengo: complete with an energetic dance (or, at least, as energetic as is possible with a 30 pound brass instrument wrapped over your shoulder). The crowd were once again jumping on their feet before the song ended and Sam Sweeney took to the highest riser, making him on level with the balcony, to begin what is probably Bellowhead’s “greatest hit”: Roll the Woodpile Down. It seemed slightly unusual playing it in the middle of the setlist, rather than towards the end as is customary, but perhaps it served to signify that the latter half of the evening would be an all-out circus of energy. If this was indeed the premise, the band did not disappoint.

Benji Kirkpatrick (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki) startled the audience by approaching the microphone between songs and removing his shirt in between a sneaky advertisement for the new live album. “Sorry, we don’t have a dressing room up here,” he joked, as he donned the tight denim vest that he would finish the performance in. Little Sally Racket is a song that divides Bellowhead fans. It is not one of the songs that is more audibly pleasing, yet when it is played live it is impossible to not get caught up in the moment; particularly when Brendan Kelly approaches the centre stage with a mischievous grin, sunglasses on, clarinet in one hand and saxophone in the other, and begins playing both instruments at once!

Another surprise was in store for the next piece, and Boden seemed delighted to welcome to the stage Giles Lewin: the original violin player before he was “replaced with a younger model” of Sam Sweeney. The audience began shouting for a speech, but unfortunately from the middle this shouting drowned out everything he actually said. The noise died away, however, as the band began playing Spiers’ signature tune Jiggery Pokerwork, before descending into anarchy once more for Haul Away and Seven Stars. Having five violins playing at once was a particularly nice touch, which seemed to bring the last tune of the set to life.

As the drums began to signal the opening of New York Girls, I could not help but gaze across the audience sadly. This is it, everyone must have known, it’s almost the end. These thoughts must have been shared by the band as well, who seemed to give the song an even more aggressively energetic feel than normal – if indeed that is possible. After the audience had stopped square-dancing and the lights grew dim once again, Paul Sartin returned to the stage followed by the rest of the band to introduce the encore. Again, I reflect that those few minutes backstage must have been tense and emotional for all eleven of them, as he seemed as if he struggled to get the words out without hiccup, “twelve years we’ve been doing this; we’re knackered” – but his voice betrayed him in letting us know that there is nothing in the world he would rather be doing for these final few minutes. London Town got the audience going once more, with Boden helpfully reminding us that “it’s your last chance to sing along, be as loud as you can!” With which we all happily complied.

Kirkpatrick read out the long list of names of people to thank over the
ir twelve year careers: from guitar technicians to bus drivers; from merchandise sellers to Andy Bell on the sound desk, not a name seemed forgotten for all the people who work behind the scenes to make the show happen. Adam Maughan, the tour manager, was brought up onto the stage to embrace each band member before being presented with a bottle of champagne as a thank you gift, before Frogs Legs and Dragon’s Teeth began for one last round. “The jumpy bit at the end”, as it has officially been dubbed, would have happily continued for another few hours, but unfortunately all good things must come to an end – as they did with Sam Sweeney jumping several feet from the highest riser down to the stage without injury. By this point I don’t think many of the audience were too interested in watching the antics going on onstage, however: we were all too busy jumping around carelessly ourselves.

A second encore was a given, as it had been for every other show of the tour, and once again the band returned to the stage; this time not even attempting to hide teary-eyed faces as one member left the stage yet again to dry their face in a towel. Prickle Eye Bush was the first song that Bellowhead ever played live, twelve years ago in the exact same venue that they finished in; it was a fitting end to an illustrious career, and one that the audience knew every single word to. When the time came for them all to line up and take their final bow not a single face among eleven displayed anything but a combination of sorrow and gratitude: a combination of emotions reciprocated from every member of the audience, many of whom were even more visibly in tears than the band themselves. The send-off was as emotional as the show, which was, at times, incredibly moving and difficult to watch. As they took to the steps, Paul Sartin seemed to linger behind his colleagues to take one last appreciative look out to the crowd, and then was gone.

The lights came up, but not a single person moved. If we cheer hard enough and long enough, they’ll come back, seemed to be the dominant thought. Any hopes for a third encore were crushed when the technicians began to pack away the equipment, but as the crowd began to disperse one brave man got to his feet on the right hand side balcony and shouted over the commotion. “Three cheers for Bellowhead!” The cry rang out loud and clear, and three times the audience raised glasses and voices to the roof in celebration of the band and its career. Over many shows one of the highlights for me has always been approaching the stage at the end for a brief catch-up with the band members, several of whom have become friends over the last few years, and it seemed many others harboured the desire for one last goodbye as well. All hopes of this were dispersed by the crew telling us “that’s it, they’ve gone.”

In a way, I confess to finding myself glad that we did not bump into anyone from the band whilst leaving the venue, nor in the after-show session that a few fans got started in a nearby pub. This was their moment, their last moment to say goodbye to each other, and no one who was not in the band could ever truly grasp what they must have been going through as they left the venue after that show. Although the band may be gone, memories of their music and legendary live shows will live on as a rarity: the folk band that broke out of the folk scene by fusing elements of just about every single music style, and perhaps that is why they appealed to such a huge range of people. One fan Tweeted afterwards that Bellowhead concerts had been some of the best nights out of her life, and I am sure that hundreds of others would agree. They were a band who truly appreciated the success they had achieved, and never failed to support and share laughs with the friends and fans they made through making their music. Whether they include, as mine do, mimicking the brass section and their absurd dances, or drunkenly deciding that the dodgy-looking kebab van in Bristol city centre looked like a good idea after an after-show pub session, every fan will have their own memories of Bellowhead that mean something different to them. Whilst each of the band members are in their own other projects and we will all undoubtedly cross paths with them again in various guises, May 1st 2016 in Oxford City Hall was something unique. Without turning this review into a eulogy, all that is left for the rest of us to say is to Jon, John, Sam, Paul, Rachael, Pete, Benji, Justin, Brendan, Ed, and Andy: thank you for everything.

Photo Credit: Johnny Dent Photography

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