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The Royal Opera House might seem a rather incongruous venue for a raucous folk gig, but if any band was going to win round such a discerning crowd it was going to be the 11-strong Bellowhead, with its big-band renditions and reinterpretations of traditional tunes.
With two sets that comprised reels, jigs and some compelling ballads, the sheer force of leading man Jon Boden’s fiddle, guitar and confident vocal chords and his compadre John Spiers’ rousing squeezebox led the chorus on stage and audience below them through a varied landscape of English roots music that set them up as latter-day Albion Pogues.
Suited and booted and complete with a pink tie, Boden strutted his stuff on stage with a rock-star swagger and braggadocio from the off. The opening number, “Rigs of Time”, set the tone. Starting with the riff from Mission Impossible, blasted by the four-strong brass section, Boden sang with unshakeable commitment backed by a band ready to do battle with the cavernous and difficult acoustic of the ROH2 space, which, with its vaulted roof and mirrored walls, resembles a shopping mall more than a concert venue.
The sound was driven inexorably along by a rhythm section that combined a euphonium on the bass lines with a drummer, Pete Flood, who stood up to hit at a percussion rack which included pots and pans. All of this was tempered by the band’s affable banter – “This is a dance song. That’s a hint” – which further encouraged an already willing sell-out crowd to throw themselves about to the songs, which, as the set went on, became more and more celebratory.
There is a fine theatricality to Bellowhead, which suited this venue and would no doubt fill the main house. And it was Boden who led the way with his mannered gestures and razor-sharp voice, never more so than in the folk standard “Flash Company”, where his mock striptease suited the brassy blows of a band who were up for a party.
This was folk with attitude that rocked an opera house – no mean feat. ★★★★☆
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