Live Review: Bellowhead at Lincoln Engine Shed – 23rd November 2012

By on Friday, 30th November 2012 at 2:00 pm

When the bloke handing you your ticket, grins and says you’re in for a good night, you know something special is on offer. And that’s what happened on Sunday at the Engine Shed. Bellowhead, serial winners of Best Live Act in the annual BBC Radio2 Folk Awards, showed a packed house just why they are so highly rated.

Eleven musicians – but about a hundred instruments – assault a range of folk classics, drinking songs, new works and mash-ups in a 2-hour romp that brings the verve of a garage band, the knock-about of minstrelsy and a light show on a par with venue rock. If you’ve never seen a helicon player (or don’t even know what a helicon is*) bouncing about the stage whilst wrapped in several yards of brass or a battered loud hailer used as an amplifier. then you really do need to check out Bellowhead next time they’re in town.

Fronted by Jon Boden, they came together 8 years ago for a festival gig and are still first and foremost a live act. The CDs and DVDs obviously matter – they’re too well-produced not to – but performance is what Bellowhead are really about. It shows confidence in their programme and audience rapport that the song that has got them onto mainstream radio this year, ‘10,000 Miles Away’ is third up on the set list when most bands would keep the latest ‘hit’ back as a banker.

If many of their songs are about drinking, sex or death (or any combination thereof) that tends to be the way of traditional songs, but this no night of woolly jumpers and acoustic warbling. A folk standby like ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ starts with a darkened stage and a phalanx of fiddle players striking rather than bowing their strings and builds to a dark and menacing climax. The reflective ‘Life of a Man’ is played to a faux Cossack rhythm, and that old military band warhorse ‘Lilli Bulero’ becomes a stomping folk-rock march.

A generous encore gives the now bouncing audience ‘New York Girls’ and a pair of reels and Bellowhead finally depart with the cheers of Lincoln ringing in their ears. If they were at their best that night, they had to be because the support was terrific too and set the bar pretty high. A punk-Zydeco trio from that hotbed of Cajun cross-over, Switzerland, Mama Rosin deserve a review of their own some time soon.

*It’s a relative of the tuba. Yes, you needed to know that.

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