A positive approach to Folk.
From the start, it was made clear that this was going to be bright and cheerful, rather than doom laden, folk. The opening number was Butter, Cheese and All, a light hearted song about the predicament of being stuck up a chimney with pockets full of butter and cheese. There was to be no betrayal, death or murder ballad here.
The last time I saw Spiers and Boden was as part of the 11-piece band Bellowhead, at St George’s Hall. While Bellowhead required every inch of the Bradford stage, the Howard Assembly Room was perfect for the more informal duo of Spiers and Boden.
The revamped Assembly Room has lost none of its intimacy. Separation from the Grand Theatre has helped with acoustics. Sound was always good but no longer is there a danger of interval noise drifting in from other productions. Certainly, going to the toilet is easier now you don’t need to creep around the dress circle. Well done, too, for introducing unisex toilets – gone is the long queue of women. My only complaint is that the bar has been downsized. There is no longer any draught beer, but maybe this will change when the downstairs restaurant opens in July.
The two founders of folk super group, Bellowhead, were a duo before they asked all their friends to join them on stage. The set was largely based upon their new album, Fallow Ground, issued in 2021. It has been a decade since their last album and seven years since they toured as a duo. The Fallow Ground of the title refers the pause in live performances during Covid, when they planned the album, as well as a title track.
They are obviously relishing the opportunity to return to a much simpler performance. Their friendship is clear to see, their instruments communicate in an easy manner and ease of performance hides highly accomplished musicianship and complex arrangements. Jon Boden’s powerful vocals rise easily above his energetic fiddle playing, while John Spiers shows his skills on a variety of melodeons and concertinas.
All the songs were traditional, but they had clearly scoured the song books for positive takes on traditional themes. One for instance, Old Maui, is a whalers’ song. As the pair point out, although there are many great whaling songs, whaling is a horrible industry and a hard life. Not obviously an upbeat theme. In this song the men have left the whaling ground and are looking forward to a holiday with rum, girls and sunshine.
Songs were intertwined with musical interludes, some traditional, others penned by Boden or Spiers. Throughout the show the pair offered light hearted commentary on the set list. This often raised a smile when John Spiers explained their titles. The non-vocal elements are not about anything, so naming can be quite random. None more so than the lively Ironing Board Hornpipe.
The first set finished with their first foray into Australian folk, Bluey Brink. This is a tale of a tough shearer, who shears five hundred sheep a day in the outback. There might have finally been an element of tragedy here, when he drinks sulphuric acid. It soon becomes clear this is another comic song as the only effect is that he sets his beard on fire when he coughs. It proved a suitably riotous way to end the set.
Fallow Ground, a night visiting song, appeared in the second set. Such songs, where a lover appears at a window in the night, usually end in betrayal, regret or despair. Here the couple seem to have had a very pleasant time and the song ends with the lover departing, walking over the fallow ground.
In Bold Sir Rylas, there is some death and destruction. It tells the story of Sir Rylas’s hunting trip and an encounter with a witch. In their introduction to the song, they claim the fight that appears at the end could have gone either way. That sometimes they mix it up and let the witch win. Maybe, they do. After all, given the chauvinism of many folk songs maybe the ‘witch’ was innocent woman whose boar had been killed by the lord. On this occasion, Sir Rylas won.
The final song of the set was Prickle-Eye Bush, a song they popularised during their time with Bellowhead. It is a song that shows off their ability to change pace and mood. They described it playfully as a song about someone stuck in a hedge. The bush in question is the site of the gallows. True to the theme of the concert, the protagonist is saved, and a happy ending achieved.
I was pleased to see that the encore was a tune suggested by an audience member. It took them a moment of hesitation, to respond to the call out. After all, they had not played it for five years. Being the professionals they are, they went with it, throwing all their energy into the boisterous musical ending.
Upbeat and sharing the joy of music.