From traffic jams to jamming it out

Bellowhead
Bellowhead

FOR a band that was formed in a traffic jam, Bellowhead haven’t done so bad. Since their 2006 formation in a Mini on the M25, the 11-piece folk outfit have been decorated with awards, recorded at Abbey Road Studios and approached about recording music for the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons.

And yes, this epic, rootsy, dance-inspiring outfit all started with just an idea between two men somewhere with bad traffic management.

Now Bellowhead are hailed as one of the best live acts in the country. Sheffield-based frontman Jon Boden says: “There’s a lot more focus on live performance now as CD sales are declining. And the collective approach to live music makes the audience feel part of it. The audience and the band are together as one.”

Bellowhead’s material is predominantly English folk, inspired by shanties and ballads that date back as far as the 17th-century.

“It’s multi generational,” says Boden. “It’s not so much that people really need to know about - for example - the murder of a 17th-century Scottish lord but the storytelling aspect is part of being human.”

And while Bellowhead’s music cross-references these historic periods in English folk music, Boden’s love for folk comes from Sixties folk artists such as Martin Carthy. “For me folk was really interesting in the Sixties and right up to the Seventies and Eighties, there was a new genre of folk born during those periods.”

And while folk music does offer a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of another life, indeed another world, Boden’s careful to interpret this with caution. “The songs of the Copper Family, for example, are idealistic but the main thing about folk is that it is entertainment and the fact we love storytelling tells us something about humanity. “Storytelling is the way we relate to each other and the way we entertain each other. Now people watch DVDs and people meet in the pub and gossip. It’s sad we’ve lost that ability to tell stories.”

But Bellowhead are carrying storytelling’s torch.

Its latest album, Broadside, is inspired by the ‘broadsides’ that Bellowhead became interested in. “The broadsides are old printed ballads that are a bit different to other folk styles in that they haven’t evolved so much. We have quite a lot of these though not all of them made it on to the album.”

Decisions as to what material Bellowhead includes on their albums is made by the producer. “It’s quite nice really, the producer makes those decisions and chooses the songs he likes best. He’s also the man in charge of the album, he brings it all together.”

And while the band are focused on English folk music, they do have a significant brass section, which drives the songs and adds body to the band’s time-transcending ballads.

“It’s actually really technical having a brass section. With English folk the songs are more melody-based, it’s not like Irish or Scottish folk where it’s fast-paced. We have to integrate the brass really carefully so that it doesn’t sound too disconnected.”

The result is a ‘wall-of sound’ aesthetic that’s full bodied, rich and textured. “It’s roots music, after all, but it’s also music that makes people want to dance.”

Bellowhead play at City Hall on Thursday, February 14.