Bellowhead Playback

Bellowhead ‘Pandemonium’ playback, The Social, London

I’ve never been to a Playback. I had visions of rows of chairs full of writerly types and a gleaming studio with speakers taller than me. Traditionally, artists like journalists to sit quietly and listen to the new songs whilst tapping their feet and taking their notes politely.
Bellowhead Playback

Bellowhead Playback

Not Bellowhead.
See, first of all, there’s that name. ‘Bellowhead‘. Radiohead for the steam age. Then there are the tunes – folk, but contemporary folk, and delivered live with a vivacity like no-one else. And thirdly there’s that reputation as absolutely the best party band around.
So the Bellowhead ‘playback’ is downstairs at London’s super-hip The Social, as owned by the Heavenly record label and wallpapered with posters of St Etienne, Cherry Ghost and other modish bands on the label. The beer (Camden Pale Ale) is great, and there are cocktails named after the band’s greatest hits. Fancy a Hedonism? Of course you do.
The new album is called Pandemonium, and it’s their greatest hits. It’s also the band’s epitaph – after a dozen years of touring, they’ve elected to put down the shaky egg, cease the megaphone scratching, and put the Brasso back in the silverware cupboard. The Playback is to celebrate the album, but we fans know all the tracks, and so the music plays quietly in the background as footage of the band is projected and the hot dogs are served.
I manage a quick chat with a couple of the members. Jon Boden is the ridiculously youthful-looking 38-year-old lead singer, and it was his decision to leave which prompted the breakup of the band. It’s been ten years of touring (in addition to his other projects) and he confessed that he was just looking forward to two years of ‘nothing in his diary’. There’s a sense of muted sadness from many of the attendees at the playback about the breakup, although the band all still appear to get on. The group is comprised of multiple smaller groups which all came together in 2004 as an idea from Boden and musical partner John Spiers, and as multi-instrumentalist Paul Sartin told me, they played two gigs and released one EP and won their first ever British Folk Award (Best Live Band) straight away.
Bellowhead are a band best experienced live – their ‘choreography’ and stage magnetism really bring out the energy in their music. But the songs are great too – the majority being heavily traditional folk songs updated with outrageous arrangements and a panoply of instrumentation. The tracks on the album are perfectly chosen and it would be nice to see them sent off with a Squeeze / Beautiful South-sized chart success.
I’ve seen them a number of times – the first time at Glastonbury in 2011 (“Anyone here from Yarmouth? Nobody?!”) and most memorably, during a superb New Year’s Eve gig at the Bristol Colston Hall, where they came out after midnight and played cheesy 70’s covers. For a taste of the live act, check out Youtube – there’s a great rendition of ‘New York Girls‘, the opening track on ‘Pandemonium‘.
I do urge you to go and see them. Many venues are already sold out for their two-stage farewell tour, but you really should try and catch them while you can. They are the best live band you have 127 tickets left to see.
Don’t like folk? Try Bellowhead. ‘Course you folkin’ do.
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