Bellowhead founding members John Spiers and Jon Boden mark their 10th anniversary as a recording duo with the release of 'The Works'. Featuring a stellar supporting cast that includes Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Andy Cutting, Maddy Prior and Martin Simpson among other folk luminaries, the album revisits a selection of the most significant songs and tunes that have accompanied them through the last decade.
They released their first album 'Through and Through' in 2001 and its joy and vibrancy not only made deep inroads into the existing scene, it offered the first clue that Spiers & Boden had the energy, commitment and talent to introduce a whole new audience to that scene. Following a period where our intrepid duo also featured as part of Eliza Carthy's band the Ratcatchers, they released 'Bellow' in 2003, plundering more morris tunes and attacking some well-known songs with remarkable zeal and imagination.By this time the pair were accumulating awards (a BBC Folk Horizon Award in 2003 was followed by Best Duo in 2004 and 2006). Following more time on the road with Eliza Carthy, they released two albums simultaneously, 'Tunes' and 'Songs'. Although one might have assumed that the first full-blooded outbreak of Bellowheadmania that followed these releases would have swallowed up the duo incarnation of Spiers & Boden, this proved to be far from the case. Far from being overwhelmed by the big band, their two-piece persona was enhanced by the new horizons they saw in front of them. Their 2008 album 'Vagabond' (their first for Navigator Records), a thematic collection depicting stories of ruffians and rebels, proved that, far from being distracted by their other activities, they were actually energised by them. And suddenly, they've been recording for 10 years and have played more than a 1,000 gigs together. It would have been far simpler for them to mark the occasion by cobbling a straightforward compilation of their original tracks. That would have been good, as their back catalogue stands up well. But instead they decided to re-examine their own past and incorporate the various developments embraced along the way, and by doing so, they've achieved something fresh and good as new. For while this latest album 'The Works' is one of landmarks, it's also the clarion call of an important, remarkable and constantly evolving musical partnership and a colourful selection of music that is excitingly evolving with them.
'THE WORKS' - also features : Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Pete Coe, Andy Cutting, James Fagan, Ian Giles, Fay Hield, David Kosky, Hannah James, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Maddy Prior and Sam Sweeney
They first met in a pub on the outskirts of Oxford, and since then have played around 1,000 shows together (by their own estimation), recorded five albums as a duo, and won a batch of Radio 2 Folk Awards. Spiers is a one-time genetics student and an exponent of the melodeon and concertina, while Boden is a singer and fiddler (and now a multi-instrumentalist), greatly influenced by that fine performer from the 1960s folk revival, the late Peter Bellamy. They succeeded because of Boden's distinctive and bravely theatrical vocal style, and the energy, enthusiasm and invention in their often no-nonsense treatment of English folk songs and dance tunes. All of these traits are on display here.
The obvious way to celebrate their anniversary would have been to release a straightforward best-of compilation, taking tracks from their earlier albums. But that's not their style. Instead, they've re-recorded favourite songs from their catalogue alongside friends from right across the British folk scene. The guest list is impressive, from those veterans Martin Carthy and Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior, who both started out in the folk revival of the 60s, through to guitar hero Martin Simpson, squeezebox star Andy Cutting, and the wildly versatile Eliza Carthy - who was once backed by Spiers & Boden when they were members of her band, The Ratcatchers.
But the famous guests are never allowed to dominate - this is very much a Spiers & Boden set, their singing and playing as classy, enthusiastic and varied as ever. The songs include a cheerfully dramatic new treatment of Prickle-Eye Bush, a firm favourite at Bellowhead shows; here it's driven on by Martin Carthy's guitar and a vocal trio that includes Boden's partner Fay Hield (the three are also heard on the rousing shanty Old Maui). Then there are narrative ballads, with Eliza Carthy adding subtle vocal backing to Boden's impressive singing on The Birth of Robin Hood; and a spirited and entertaining Bold Sir Rylas, featuring Boden on guitar, Eliza Carthy on fiddle and vocals, and Spiers and Cutting adding sturdy squeezebox backing. Amongst these collaborative affairs is one example of how the duo sounds playing by themselves: the full-bloodied, stomping revival of Rochdale Coconut Dance, a perfect reminder of why Spiers & Boden are so special.
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"A welcome resumé of the duo's first decade."
-- Record Collector ****
"The air is celebratory with some of our greatest exponents of folk making guest contributions." -- The Sun (4.5)
"whether its a stately dance or a sea shanty joyousness reigns" -- The Observer (10)