Bellowhead Hedonism Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

The award-winning folk outfit isn’t afraid to try new things on album three.

Chris White 2010

Anyone who thinks folk can’t rock has obviously never attended a Bellowhead concert. Although deeply steeped in the age-old history of the genre, what sets this unique group apart is the range of other influences they weave into their sound. Jazz, funk, English music hall, New Orleans marching bands – they’re all present in this 11-strong big band’s riotous, hugely entertaining performances, which invariably transform their audiences into a kind of medieval mosh pit.

Bellowhead’s first album, 2006’s Burlesque, was a breath of fresh air, capturing the dizzy exuberance of their live act with an inventive, instantly infectious set of reworked traditional folk songs completely different to anything else on the scene. 2008’s Matachin provided more of the same, although arguably without the novelty impact of its predecessor. With the release of Hedonism, the challenge for Jon Boden and company is keeping the core ingredients that work so well in place while making sure they don’t go stale.

By and large, the record succeeds in doing just that. Tracks like New York Girls and Broomfield Hill are quintessential Bellowhead romps, with soaring fiddle, frenzied percussion, some huge brass riffs and, in the latter’s case, the rarely heard English bagpipes. Yarmouth Town and instrumental Cross-Eyed and Chinless superbly showcase the sheer musical virtuosity of the ensemble, able to shift pace, mood and textures effortlessly in faultless display of playing that’s sometimes breathtakingly complex yet always totally cohesive.

What’s more, Hedonism isn’t afraid to try new things, albeit with mixed results. A brave attempt to cover Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam falls just short, with Boden’s rather reedy voice unable to provide the epic emotional heft of Scott Walker’s definitive recording. And Little Sally Racket is aptly named; a cacophony of Beefheart-like freeform madness with rock guitar, squalling horns and manic chanting, it’s a far cry indeed from the real ale and woollen sweater stereotype that still bedevils folk’s reputation.

With their delirious joie de vivre and compelling ability to radically reinterpret the tales of our past still very much intact, there’s little sign of the Bellowhead juggernaut running out of steam just yet.

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