Is it really a decade since English folk music was shaken to its core by the arrival of the big brassy sound of Bellowhead? It might not seem that long but Revival, the 5th album by the eleven piece English roots band, has just been released to celebrate ten years together.
The band was the brainchild of singer and fiddler John Boden and melodeon and concertina player John Spiers. On their first albums they made a fine noise adding all kinds of instrumentation to arrangements of traditional songs but it was on their 2010 release Hedonism that they really found their feet as recording artists. This milestone was followed by the manic but equally accomplished Broadside. As if this wasn’t enough the boys (and girl) are in superb form once more on Revival which comprises another ten songs and one instrumental.
With one exception, all of the pieces here are traditional, arranged by members of the band. If there’s a difference it’s that the songs are even bigger than before with a strong helping of brass to accompany Boden’s lead vocals. The two sea shanties which open the album, ‘Let Her Run’ and ‘Roll Alabama’, are as good as almost anything they’ve done while the drinking song ‘Let Union Be’ takes it to another level of musical diversity with hints of Latin American thrown into the mix just when it seems to have settled into a familiar groove.
‘Gosport Nancy’ is another highlight but it’s the one non-traditional track, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’, which almost steals the show. Richard and Linda Thompson’s version is so embedded in the consciousness of English folk-rock aficionados that it seems almost foolhardy to mess about with it, but Bellowhead’s version is thrillingly different to just the right degree. ‘Rosemary Lane’ (a variant of the ‘Scarborough Fair’ story) is perhaps less of a triumph and the instrumental ‘Jack Lintel’ is no better or worse than others of its kind, but the album as a whole is so good that it’s churlish to find fault.
This is the band’s first release on the Island label which was famously the home of other important folk innovators Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. The album was produced and mixed by Rupert Christie. Bellowhead are at heart a live band and probably best experienced as such. Sadly, it’s unlikely that we in Okinawa will ever have the opportunity to see them. In fact, how long they can maintain such a large group of musicians is a moot point but not one we should worry about too much for now. Let’s just be grateful for Revival and enjoy it while it lasts.
The CD notes make the important point that it has never been easier to discover the rich diverse sounds of many different places in the world such as Cuba, Portugal, Africa (and it might be added, Okinawa) but “the English have a reticence to embrace their own traditional culture, an isolated approach even within the British Isles. Bellowhead address this and take songs and music that are part of the historical tradition and infuse them with the same spirit and joy that are recognised elsewhere.”