Jon Boden is best known as the charismatic front man of the 11-piece folk band Bellowhead, a group that is unmatched in attracting the uninitiated to traditional British music. Their gigs enrich a host of traditional songs about whiskey and prostitutes with a brilliant sense of foot-stomping fun that is difficult to resist.
As well as directing Bellowhead’s ferocious jauntiness, Jon Boden is also a proponent for the more tranquil, down-to-earth side of the folk scene. In 2011 he undertook the Folk Song a Day project where he released an unaccompanied song every single day of the year – they weren’t audibly incredible, but remain a fascinating historical record of the cultural lives of our not so distant ancestors.
The gig was most definitely representative of this element of Boden’s career – the entire audience was seated and seemed to have grey hair. In fact I only counted about 10 people who looked younger than 30, and needless to say, there wasn’t much chance of a mosh pit.
The four-strong Remnant Kings aren’t a real band per say, but a random cobbling together of musicians that is so common in folk circuits. The presence of fellow Bellowheaders Sam Sweeney and Paul Sartin was certainly welcome and helped to cushion Boden’s voice with a rich bed of instruments. This did make the first half mildly frustrating – having seen the bombastic energy with which Sweeney and Sartin can play, it was irritating to see them keep their skills reined in. Once I truly twigged that this was not a Bellowhead gig however, I began to enjoy myself far more.
Most of the songs played focused on telling an old story, and paying attention to the narrative improved the experience markedly. Most traditional English songs centre around unrequited love, death and bedding innocent virgins before escaping to sea – they are often exceedingly morbid, but underpinned with a wonderfully dark sense of humour. Folk traditions, no matter where in the world, are powered by the telling of stories and there is something very enriching about engaging with a cultural heritage. It was not a set designed to attract those unaccustomed to the genre, but for anyone with a fondness for this sort of music it was a shining example of how to do it well. It wasn’t a dreary set of unexciting melodies – the traditional songs were interspersed with more modern tracks, most notably a reimagining of the Whitney Houston song ‘I Want to Dance with Somebody’.
One of the notable things about the genre is the strong connection between the performers and the audience. Folk exists to be participated in, it thrives when people throw their insecurities to the wind and get involved – you don’t go to watch the music, you go to be part of it. Within five minutes of the last song finishing the entire band were sat around the bar, inviting everyone to stay for a singing session. Each member contributed several songs and most of the choruses were picked up by the audience, who still numbered about fifty people. Occasionally an audience member would pipe up with a tune, although most of them were ethereal old women who’d warble on about blackbirds or butterflies, everyone dutifully tried to join in.
As a song about the virtues of drinking ale all day faded away, I find myself inexplicably volunteering myself to have a go. “I’ve not really drunk enough for this and I’ve never sung a note before in my life, but I’ve got a song”. I know a very simple song called My Son John, a tale of a young soldier going off to fight Napoleon and getting his legs shot off by a cannonball. I had to look at the lyrics on my phone to make sure I got it right, but everyone enthusiastically joined in on the chorus and before I knew it, I had finished.
After everyone had run out of things to sing, I ran up to Jon Boden and asked for an interview. He gave me his number and said to ring him up the next day (I’m terrified I’m going to drunk text him at some point). So despite his terrible signal and my crappy questions, I had a good ten minute chat with him.
The first question is a pretty easy one, how’s the tour going?
It’s going very well! It’s been two years since we’ve done a tour together, so it’s been really good to get back on the road. We did a few festivals last summer so the material is quite fresh and we got into it quite easily, so yeah it’s been nice.
There’s obviously quite a difference between the more intimate stuff you did last night and the foot-stomping side of Bellowhead, could you say which one you enjoyed more?
I enjoy both. It’s nice to be able to go from one type of gig to another and it keeps it interesting. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s nice to do a more reflective type of gig, you don’t have to ratchet up the energy and the ‘dancy-ness’ of it, but then it’s really great to get back to Bellowhead and have a good old jump around. It all works quite nicely together really.
A few years ago you did the Folk Song a Day project where you released a folk song every day for a year. Where did all that material come from?
About 2/3s of it I knew anyway from singing socially in pubs and stuff so a lot of it I just picked up. I never planned on recording it, I just learnt it to sing, but I thought it’d be a good idea to put it into a format that would be useful to people. The rest of the songs were just songs that I hadn’t got round to learning but had intended to learn at some point.
Out of interest, what’s your favourite beer?
I suppose I ought to say Hedonism, Bellowhead’s own creation! Although I’d probably have to go for Harvey’s Best. That’s delicious.