Bellowhead - Burlesque
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cd cover Bellowhead
Burlesque
Westpark Music (www.westparkmusic.de)

When Jon Boden and John Spiers appeared on the English folk scene, they quickly made their mark as a gutsy duo, reverently belting out their songs and tunes with complete conviction. With Spiers on melodeons and concertina and Boden on fiddle and vocals, their youthful fervor added to the growing and vibrant roots movement, and Spiers and Boden were tapped to add texture to Eliza Carthy's Rough Music album in 2005. But by then, Spiers and Boden were already looking to expand their palette of sound. In 2004 the duo released an E.P. from a new project of theirs called Bellowhead, and it became clear that what Spiers and Boden were about was something different.

Bellowhead brings big band arranging to English music, featuring a full-on horn section and the Bellowhead of 2006 is most certainly a large band, with eleven members kicking up a wall of sound. Burlesque set me scrambling for comparisons. Perhaps Brass Monkey, which featured Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick with a horn section? Not really, as Bellowhead's rhythmic flair is more dynamic and diverse than even Brass Monkey had imagined. Perhaps The Barely Works? Well, not even the Barelies are a fair comparison, as that band combined horns with more of a bluegrass/Irish influence, although the sense of experimentation and having fun is certainly apparent in Bellowhead's music.

So let's assess the risks, the pleasures of Burlesque that mark Bellowhead's first full-length release as an instant classic. For the first few seconds of the album, one hears what sounds like an orchestra tuning up: a nice touch, because once the band launches into the Napoleonic-era "Rigs of the Time," it is clear that the sheer confidence of the arranging is going to render these tunes contemporary. There's something about the punchiness of the horns on "Rigs" that plays out in my mind as Broadway theater, with Boden's singing lifting the curtain on the various social ills that the song damns.

Listen
"Jordan"
"Jordan," the second selection, is nothing less than a show-stopper. The song, according to the notes in the gorgeous, photograph-filled and full-color book, originated in the American minstrel movement and then traveled to England. Bellowhead transform it utterly into a thunderous, apocalyptic marvel. The brass section punctuates Boden's singing, but lets him lie out front, naked and exposed, and there is almost a break in his voice when he sings "It's goodbye son 'til the next kingdom come" that is so affecting that the listener cannot but help being drawn deeper into the song. Add to that a backing rhythm that is practically industrial, and "Jordan" gains further mystique. But what Bellowhead also accomplish on "Jordan" is to remind us how wonderful and amazing it is to hear a group of people join together in full-throated harmony, and here it adds that delicious edge of English tradition to the song.

No matter where you turn to during Burlesque you are met with highlight after highlight. Bellowhead brilliantly use Milton Nascimento's melody "Clube de Esquina" on the sea shanty "Across the Line," and it all sounds natural and still English. Or take the jaunty version of "London Town," which reminds me a bit of township jive that swiftly turns into a frenetic breakdown as the protagonist of the song robs the pretty maid he has just debauched! Or "Flash Company," which comes on as rude theater with Boden reeling around the song singing in a drunken stupor. Or the Middle Eastern droning flavor imparted to the beginning of "The Outlandish Knight," before the horn section comes in and levels you. Bellowhead even cover "Death and the Lady," indelibly associated with Shirley and Dolly Collins, and make it their own.

When eleven people are in a band, the arrangements had better utilize all the personnel to their advantage. The instrumental "Hopkinson's Favourite" is a prime example of shade and color; barreling in on a wave of Pete Flood's percussion, the horns simply go to town around Spiers' melodeon: a dancing feast that drops out into an unexpected reggae beat. And the tuba-led funk shanty of "Fire Marengo" could not be more brilliant; out of nowhere, the band burns into a disco meltdown, and why not?

With Burlesque, Bellowhead have crafted a wildly inventive English roots album that is part art-house romp, and that kind of experience which is too rare nowadays: pure entertainment. - Lee Blackstone

The band's web site: www.bellowhead.co.uk

CD available from cdRoots

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