Stuck in a traffic jam on London’s orbital road, so the story goes, folksters John Spiers and Jon Boden had the grand idea of expanding their simple squeezebox and vocal into something big. That was two years ago – and now, with another nine musicians in tandem, Bellowhead truly rollick.
Burlesque is the 11-strong band’s début album and it is one that presents a folk music bursting with rude and robust health. Much has been afoot on the Anglo-American folk scene of late – from the deconstructed music of Will Oldham and the mythmaking of the Handsome Family in the US to, in Britain, the careful canonical reworkings by the Waterson: Carthy family and the bucolic longings of a rediscovered Vashti Bunyan.
Bellowhead have taken their work in a different direction: all the material on Burlesque is traditional British folk, but in its reworking for a big brassy band, the flavour is more music hall, via Kurt Weill, than Steeleye Span ceilidh. Like a collision between the music of rural and industrial societies, songs like ‘Jordan’ and ‘Death and the Lady’ benefit from the rough-edged energy so unleashed. Similarly jigs like ‘Sloe Gin’ and ‘Hopkinson’s Favourite’; fiddles, trumpets and big bass drums keep the dances dipping and swaying to the last note.