Review: Bellowhead – The Water Rats, London (Album Launch)

You know it’s going to be a good night when you are given a voucher at the door that reads: ‘This token entitles the bearer to one shot of rum & one black beetle pie’, and despite not feeling quite up to a shot of rum, I definitely enjoyed the treat of the opening number Black Beetle Pies. Having entered into The Water Rats, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be any old gig. It is certainly not a large venue, and Jon Boden even said that it was a struggle to fit the whole band on the stage, with some around corners, some behind speakers, but all within reaching distance of the front row to allow beer to be passed over our heads towards the band. But what it lacked in room, it definitely made up for it with atmosphere; from Boden’s opening statement of: ‘this, ladies and gentlemen, is Broadside!’ and the riotous applaud that came from the 250-strong crowd of fans – who represented all levels of commitment to the night’s pirate theme – it was clear that this was a night for celebration and party spirit.

The small pub venue made it feel more like a night down the local with a house band than the album launch of one of Britain’s biggest folk acts, but it was apparent that Bellowhead were not at all affected by the cosiness as they showed no mercy in the dark and whimsical opener Black Beetle Pies. In just one song the band had settled right in and their now renowned theatricals kept coming in the form of their second song, the most recent single 10,000 Miles Away, and they burst immediately into a joyful explosion of travelling tradition. It seemed like they had been playing it their whole musical careers as the crowd began to sing and dance along from the first chorus.

It is near impossible to pick a highlight as the whole night was an unending stream of energy and enjoyment from the crowd and the band, but the love ballad of Betsy Baker certainly stood out for me as a moment when I realised just how talented these musicians are. Boden stood surrounded by his charismatic 10-piece band and delivered such a sincere performance of the old unrequited love story that it left me with my mouth gaping, and temporarily subdued the roomful of drunken pirates. Other highlights included Byker Hill, which had the whole crowd screaming the chorus of ‘Byker Hill and Walker Shore, collier lads for ever more’ which shook the room as we all stomped along to maybe the most powerful song Bellowhead now have in their catalogue; and Wife of Usher’s Well, a ghostly tale which saw the band seamlessly adopt a more haunting persona for a truly beautiful and captivating performance. It was a show that I really didn’t want to end, and even though I had listened through Broadside several times already, it really felt like I was hearing these songs for the first time with the tireless energy they brought to the set. Even in the final number, old favourite Frog’s Legs And Dragon’s Teeth, the whole band, as well as the crowd, were bouncing up and down until it came to an end.

I can’t end without saying a bit about the old songs they dotted the set with, which included a very well received Whiskey Is The Life Of Man, the rousing Sloe Gin and of course the untiring Bellowhead anthem New York Girls, and though I was incredibly happy to have heard these songs live, even these classics didn’t manage to overshadow the triumph of their full Broadside showcase. I had been waiting a long time to see Bellowhead and I can’t think of a better time or place to have done it – it was intimate, it was explosive and it certainly convinced me that they are the best live folk band in Britain today. They are made for the stage, and the 11 hugely talented musicians are refreshingly down-to-earth people who certainly know how to put on a good old fashioned show, and know how to make a crowd happy.

As Jon Boden himself said: ‘That, ladies and gentlemen, was Broadside’.

Josh King