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Oct
2015
Thursday 15th
posted by Morning Star in Arts

BELLOWHEAD’S imminent split will leave the folk world a duller and greyer place but there’s plenty of time to give the 22-legged folk-pop-funk-big-band monster a fitting send-off.

They’re bidding farewell with a two-part British tour which is certain to be a raucous, beery and occasionally teary affair.

While we wait for that — get your tickets fast, they’re running out — Jon Boden’s crew are whetting our appetites with Pandemonium: The Essential Bellowhead (Navigator Records).

The 13 tracks represent all five studio albums plus the E.P.Onymous mini-album and cram in all the crowd-pleasers — New York Girls, London Town, Roll Alabama and Yarmouth Town, for starters.

Every fan will have a missing favourite. I’d have liked a broader range of their wildly eclectic catalogue and I hope the tour setlist features their brilliantly wonky take on Rudyard Kipling’s Cholera Camp or the dark melodrama of Jacque Brel’s Amsterdam.

But for novices this is a perfect introduction to the best live act in Britain. And die-hards should buy a copy too, just so that if someone asks: “What’s the big fuss about with Bellowhead?” you can shove this into their hand and say: “This. This is what the fuss is about.”

Few would challenge Ewan MacColl’s stature as a prime mover of the folk revival, a principled communist and a tireless documenter of the voices of working people.

But for all that it’s easy to lose sight of the range and skill of his own songwriting.

For MacColl the political and personal were inseparable and his stern reputation is at odds with the love and compassion that infuse so many of his great songs.

Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl (Cooking Vinyl), released to mark the centenary of his birth, recruits an all-star cast to set the record straight.

Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, their daughter Eliza Carthy, Martin Simpson and Billy Bragg are among the luminaries tackling songs on topics ranging from the then-new profession of the long-distance lorry driver to the hardships of Gypsies and Travellers.

It’s not afraid to celebrate MacColl’s politics. Christy Moore sings The Companeros — a ballad of the Cuban revolution — with passion, as does Dick Gaughan with the Spanish civil war lament Jamie Foyers.

MacColl’s classics are well served by Steve Earle, with a countrified reinvention of Dirty Old Town and the apt leftfield choice of the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan to croon The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

I’d have liked to hear the mining song Schooldays Over in its poignant version by the Young ’Uns, instead of the bull-throated Damien Dempsey rendition here.

And conversely Seth Lakeman’s fussy delivery doesn’t suit The Shoals of Herring, which demands bold simplicity.

But they’re small missteps in a double album full of thoughtful reinterpretations of some of the landmarks of folk songwriting.

Fans of the late great John Renbourn will be in raptures at the release of The Attic Tapes (Riverboat Records), a remaster of recordings recently unearthed in a friend’s loft dating back to 1962.

He was still three years away from his first studio recording but this mix of standards and Renbourn compositions shows just how much of that virtuoso bluesy guitar technique was already in place.

Pete Morton’s The Land of Time (Fellside Recordings) is an ambitious and inventive record from a man not shy of ripping up the folk rulebook and using it for confetti.

Standouts are Poverty Frap and Slave to the Game, which pinch the choruses from a Lancashire mill lament and the old sailor-tricks-prostitute story London Town, and use them to rail against the plight of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers and the evils of the global sex trafficking trade.

Two honourable mentions — first, the Andy May Trio for About Time (Ashwood), a high-energy instrumental set of Northumbrian tunes played with real verve.

Second, Seamus Begley’s rich, unpretentious singing in The Bold Kerryman (IRL) should charm fans of Irish traditional song.

Review by James Miller




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