Any new recording by the English folk big band Bellowhead is a major event nowadays. Their new release Broadside is their fourth album. It follows on from 2010’s Hedonism which was the highlight of the band’s career so far as it finally managed to capture all the excitement and buzz of their live shows – and won various awards for best folk and roots album of the year. So it’s an almost impossibly hard task to top that and it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if Broadside had been content to drift along in its wake. Not a bit of it. The new album comes out with all guns blazing and the singing, musicianship and arrangements are even wilder and more inventive than ever.
Broadside comprises all traditional English folk songs (plus one original instrumental) and they really come to life again in the hands of the eleven band members. The album opens with ‘Byker Hill’ the well-known traditional song from the north-east of England which has long been associated with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. Carthy recorded a very different version two years ago with The Imagined Village but Bellowhead’s recording completely renovates it again with strings, brass, a choral section, and a typically stirring vocal from Jon Boden. After this the energetic songs come thick and fast with particular highlights being the shanty ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ and the unusually cheerful transportation song ’10,000 Miles Away’.
There are plenty of complex arrangements and sudden changes throughout the twelve tracks. The 19th century broadside ballad ‘Betsy Baker’ is brought alive with a memorable melody and an instrumental section which wouldn’t be out of place on a Beatles album. Occasionally, the experiments almost go too far and the traditional ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ has staccato chanted singing and the menacing air of Brecht or Tom Waits which almost threatens to steer the band off course but they just about get away with it. It’s certainly different.
Producer John Leckie, who was also in charge for Hedonism, has done another fine job in capturing all the brilliant musicianship and histrionics. The new arrangements may not be to everyone’s liking but these old songs were not written in stone and the liberties taken with them by Bellowhead are always thrilling. In fact, it’s an album which almost takes your breath away with its sheer excitement and love of life.
Broadside is released by Navigator. Bellowhead’s video of the song ‘10,000 Miles Away’ can be viewed on their website: