The presentation of folk music in a modern world distant from the rural traditions that generated the original article has driven controversy without end. Virtually everyone drawn to folk music in its revival incarnation has an opinion about whether a particular nontraditional approach works and where such an approach ceases to have deeper resonance. In most cases the argument can be reduced to how much pop music can be incorporated into an arrangement of "folk" before it's just, well, more disposable pop.
Formed in 2004 by two leading folk singers, Jon Boden and John Spiers, Bellowhead is at the forefront of Britain's current revival. An 11-piece band, Bellowhead incorporates a four-member brass section along with other instruments (guitars, fiddles, mandolin, banjo, pipes, percussion) more ordinarily associated with folk and folk-rock outfits. The brass in itself is hardly novel; Brass Monkey has long been a horn-heavy trad band, one of whose members is no less than the enormously influential guitarist/balladeer Martin Carthy. Bellowhead's more adventurous arrangements, however, as often as not blindside the listener. Nobody's ever tried it like this before.
I was introduced to Bellowhead when I viewed a Youtube video spotlighting its staggeringly fascinating arrangement of "Jordan," an English variant of Daniel Decatur Emmett's "Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel." I hastened to order the album (Burlesque, 2006) at once and soon fell under its spell. Hedonism (2010) proved a worthy follow-up. So the announcement that a new one, Broadside, was on its way thrilled me.
It develops that Bellowhead has gone forward in a predictable, inevitable direction into louder, busier and more intricate arrangements. One thinks of Steeleye Span in the 1970s. Both Bellowhead and Steeleye Span, another fusion band broadly comparable to Bellowhead (though with different musical accents), sold lots of records and spent time on the pop charts. That's a good thing for the musicians and, I think, for folk music in general; after all, if "folk" doesn't mean people in general, not just fans of a particular genre of music, what is it anyway?
All of which is my way of saying, nonetheless, that I wish the sounds on Broadside were less frenzied and herky-jerky. Nothing on this one grabs me like some of the band's earlier treatments of old British folk songs, ballads, shanteys and dance tunes. Which is, as they say, the bad news. The good news is that the quality of musicianship in evidence started to win me over after a few, more attentive listens. I am becoming a cautious convert, it seems.
To be clear about this, I am not skittish about adventurous treatments of trad material -- to the contrary, I like to be surprised -- but I do have reservations when fancy production threatens to overwhelm the homely charms of the original. Little on Broadside sounds familiar beyond the titles, which include "The Wife of Usher's Well," "Byker Hill" and "10,000 Miles Away," all revival standards here dressed in radical new garb. It was, however, the shantey "Roll the Woodpile Down" that led me to sense how an unadorned ocean-going work chant could evolve into an early 21st-century pop song and still keep something of its essence, at least when placed in the right hands. Boden and Spiers, who know the British tradition intimately, would do nothing to harm it -- even in the deeply unlikely event that such a thing were possible.
If you're hearing of Bellowhead for the first time, you may wish to prepare yourself by listening first to Burlesque and Hedonism. If not intended for the conservative and faint of heart, Bellowhead is employing its considerable creativity and musical ability to reshape tradition for a new life in a new century.
music review by
9 February 2013
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