For anyone impatient to hear more from all-star folk band Bellowhead, the past few days have been a rare treat. Following Thursday’s Playhouse appearance by Benji Kirkpatrick and Paul Sartin as part of Faustus, last night saw the Maze play host to Bellowhead’s key founder members: singer and violinist Jon Boden, backed by John Spiers on melodeon and concertina.
Where Faustus focus on finely balanced three-way counterpoints, Spiers and Boden take a more straight-up traditional approach, with Spiers providing a solid, unflashy backdrop to his partner’s resonant vocals and amazing fiddle playing.
Clocking in at over two and a half hours, the duo’s marathon set showcased many numbers from their fifth album Vagabond. As befits its title, these were songs of rebels, wastrels, pirates, beggars… and even a certain Mr. Hood, whose conception and birth in the “good green-wood” provided the subject matter for a fine epic ballad.
Amongst the many splendid jigs, the irresistible Sloe Gin – as recently popularised by Bellowhead and The Imagined Village – made a welcome appearance.
The evening finished with a surprise non-traditional choice from the Tom Waits songbook: a lilting, yearning Innocent When You Dream, which had the crowd softly singing along, almost to themselves.
Her manner might be gentle and bookish, her songwriting might be quiet and introspective, but Laura Veirs knows a good ferris wheel when she sees one. “We went round the Nottingham Eye five times!”, she exclaimed. “That’s five quid per time! I thought it would only be once; that would be more American.”
Although technical problems forced her to abandon the live looping equipment halfway through the second number, Laura retained a relaxed, conversational demeanour throughout her solo acoustic set. Rather than plugging her latest release Saltbreakers, she drew on material from five of her six albums (“but not the first one; that was dumb”), offering to mail us her sold out CDs personally after the tour finishes.
Laura’s compositions tend towards the contemplative and abstract, with echoes of Kristin Hersh’s 1990s work. Drawing on images from mythology and the natural world – dragons and mermaids, nightingales and butterflies – her enigmatic lyrics require close concentration. In this respect, The Maze proved an ideal venue. Although packed to capacity, the silence was unbroken throughout, save for a “free improv” massed whistling session halfway through.
An excellent version of Wrecking closed the set, to sustained and deserved applause.
Anyone who still dismisses folk music as a redundant art-form – cosy, twee, stuck in the past – might have their pre-conceptions challenged by Northumbrian singer Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, pianist Belinda O’Hooley and fiddle player Niopha Keegan. Although the Winterset’s roots are in traditional folk, they are not afraid to take influences from more contemporary sources, including sparse, spine-tingling covers of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song and Antony and the Johnsons’ For Today I Am A Boy.
Combining darkness and joy to sublime effect, the delicacy and grace of the music was offset by warm, self-deprecating comic banter between the performers, and a musical variety which encompassed ukuleles, clog dancing, and impromptu renditions of Christmas classics.
Material from debut album Cruel Sister kept the traditionalists happy, while its more dramatic, boundary-pushing follow-up The Bairns pointed the way forward – both for the Winterset, and indeed for English folk music in general.