A perfect reminder of why this folk duo is so special.
Robin Denselow 2011
John Spiers and Jon Boden are the workaholic celebrities of the contemporary British folk scene, best-known as founders of the rousing folk big-band Bellowhead (Boden also works as a soloist and as leader of The Remnant Kings). But the pair began performing and recording as a duo, and this set is a predictably unexpected celebration of their 10th anniversary.
They first met in a pub on the outskirts of Oxford, and since then have played around 1,000 shows together (by their own estimation), recorded five albums as a duo, and won a batch of Radio 2 Folk Awards. Spiers is a one-time genetics student and an exponent of the melodeon and concertina, while Boden is a singer and fiddler (and now a multi-instrumentalist), greatly influenced by that fine performer from the 1960s folk revival, the late Peter Bellamy. They succeeded because of Boden’s distinctive and bravely theatrical vocal style, and the energy, enthusiasm and invention in their often no-nonsense treatment of English folk songs and dance tunes. All of these traits are on display here.
The obvious way to celebrate their anniversary would have been to release a straightforward best-of compilation, taking tracks from their earlier albums. But that’s not their style. Instead, they’ve re-recorded favourite songs from their catalogue alongside friends from right across the British folk scene. The guest list is impressive, from those veterans Martin Carthy and Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior, who both started out in the folk revival of the 60s, through to guitar hero Martin Simpson, squeezebox star Andy Cutting, and the wildly versatile Eliza Carthy – who was once backed by Spiers & Boden when they were members of her band, The Ratcatchers.
But the famous guests are never allowed to dominate – this is very much a Spiers & Boden set, their singing and playing as classy, enthusiastic and varied as ever. The songs include a cheerfully dramatic new treatment of Prickle-Eye Bush, a firm favourite at Bellowhead shows; here it’s driven on by Martin Carthy’s guitar and a vocal trio that includes Boden’s partner Fay Hield (the three are also heard on the rousing shanty Old Maui). Then there are narrative ballads, with Eliza Carthy adding subtle vocal backing to Boden’s impressive singing on The Birth of Robin Hood; and a spirited and entertaining Bold Sir Rylas, featuring Boden on guitar, Eliza Carthy on fiddle and vocals, and Spiers and Cutting adding sturdy squeezebox backing. Amongst these collaborative affairs is one example of how the duo sounds playing by themselves: the full-bloodied, stomping revival of Rochdale Coconut Dance, a perfect reminder of why Spiers & Boden are so special.