I should first disclose that I have been a fan of Bellowhead for many years, so this is unlikely to be an impartial review, and I would also like to extend my thanks to Bellowhead for making this happen. At a time when there has been so much to worry about, a Bellowhead reunion album is one hell of a tonic!
Formed in 2004, the formidable eleven piece folk powerhouse was one of the most successful and well known groups in the folk circuit, producing award winning albums such as Hedonism, Burlesque, and Revival that featured traditional folk songs, dances and shanties drawn from all over the British Isles. Part of what made Bellowhead so special was the completely unique way in which they orchestrated the relatively simple folk melodies and turned them into remarkably complex and sophisticated compositions. Instead of the traditional fiddle, guitar, accordion and bodhran, the eleven members of Bellowhead played a combined 20 instruments, with a four piece brass section (including the Helicon - a sight to behold!), bouzouki, mandolin, oboe, melodeon, and a plethora of exciting percussion instruments. Unmatched in terms of musical creativity and inventiveness, and with a stage presence to rival even the most popular rock bands, it was a great shame that after a sell out farewell performance at the London Palladium in 2016, the group disbanded, never to perform together again…
But good news, fellow Bellowhead fans! After ‘reconnecting’ virtually in July 2020 for a jovial home performance of New York Girls (which was originally recorded in 2010 at Abbey Rd Studios) Bellowhead reunited in person to perform a collection of their favourite tracks on a live-streamed concert in December 2020. Over 10,000 fans tuned in to watch Bellowhead perform together again in a London mansion setting, and so the concert was also recorded to produce a brand new Bellowhead album - ‘Reassembled’ - and after waiting patiently for the pre-order to be delivered, I am now enjoying re-living all the best Bellowhead tracks as I’ve never heard them before.
Needless to say, despite having not performed together for four years, the Bellowhead musicians have not lost any of their chemistry, playfulness and passion that makes them such a pleasure to listen to. Indeed, because I am so familiar with the recordings on their previous albums, listening to this album is a bit like watching behind the scenes clips of a favourite movie; for example Jon Boden might end a vocal phrase slightly differently on this recording of Yarmouth Town, just as an actor might try various facial expressions or wording in different takes. Although it’s hard not to show favouritism to the tracks I’m used to, I think having subtly different versions of the same song actually makes the music feel much more alive, personal, and human. Differences as small as the instruments being played in this recording not being the same as in older recordings, and the acoustic of the venue being different from that of a recording studio also make for a refreshing listen, almost tricking the listener into thinking that they’re listening to new music, not old favourites.
In every aspect of this recording, listeners can feel that the performers are having an enormous amount of fun, which is really the essence of Bellowhead. The semi-live nature of this album creates a completely different listening atmosphere to their other albums, because musicians perform differently when they have one shot to play the whole song through, rather than countless chances to re-record takes in a studio which can create an artificial, almost clinically perfect end result that lacks the amount of emotion you get from a live performance. The unique drum fills by Pete Flood, the beautiful improvised countermelodies and ornaments by Rachael and Sam on fiddle, and the spirited vocal interjections by Jon Boden that only happened once, in that concert, on that day, all combine to drag you helplessly into the folk festival atmosphere and mindset. It’s fabulous. In particular these versions of London Town and Sloe Gin might be my new favourite. My only complaint is that this isn’t a DVD of the concert!
Admittedly, the acoustic of the venue and the recording equipment are clearly not the same quality as were used to make the original recordings in a dedicated studio, but that’s really beside the point. This is Bellowhead, reassembled, and better than ever!
You can (and should!) buy this album on CD and Double LP with signed album art through Hudson Records.