Amazing news this week that the mighty Bellowhead (epithet increasingly mandatory) have been catapulted to the dizzy heights of the Radio 2 ‘A List’. It’s the latest in a long line of achievements for the scintillating eleven-piece folk-rock/folk-pop/folk-funk/folk-punk/folk-disco/folk-folk juggernaut. Previous watersheds have included an oddly seminal gig at the Royal Opera House, several Jools Holland ‘Later’ bookings, a show-stealing turn at the BBC Proms, a South Bank Centre artistic residency, and their forthcoming appearance in Richard Curtis’s new film About Time.
The ‘A list’ accolade has been bestowed upon the band’s new single ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’, taken from their current long-player Broadside. Released in October last year, the latter gave the band its biggest success to date when it entered the albums chart higher than any other indie folk album in the history of everything, everywhere.
For my money, this latest breakthrough is even bigger. We live, after all, in an age where the meaning of the charts is increasingly hard to pin down. The albums countdown in particular – like LPs themselves – has come to feel endangered and dysfunctional. For many albums, pre-orders have a disproportionate impact on first-week chart placings – and since many quickly fade from view, initial entry points aren’t always the best gauge of popularity.
The singles chart feels similarly anaemic. Even though individual songs are still coveted as the ultimate unit of pop – perhaps more so than at any time since the 1950s – and though the magnificent power of standout singles to penetrate the collective consciousness remains immense, the inclusion of digital downloads and back-catalogue tracks has made the Top 40 irritatingly whimsical. The magic has been further diluted by the ubiquity of subsidiary charts – iTunes, Amazon MP3 – not to mention the publicising of the once top-secret midweeks.
The upshot of all this is that I, for one, find it harder to make the kind of fanatical, emotional investment in the chart that I did as a kid – that highly-charged, partisan passion that had me screaming at the radio when Kylie lost out to Yazz & the Plastic Population, one
unforgettably hot and sunny dark Sunday in 1988 (I know, I know – but I was young and infatuated, ok?).
Of course, my loveless relationship with the 21st-century charts isn’t just the result of seismic shifts in how music is consumed. It may be as much – if not more, if not all – to do with being increasingly dull and middle-aged. But I don’t think the loss of mystique is entirely down to perception. Instead, I suspect it’s part of a broader, internet-led, democratising trend for transparency in all things. Whether it’s prompted by DVD special features, exposés of parliamentary scandals, or the uncovering of dark media arts, people nowadays are simply savvier about how the world operates.
Thanks to Simon Cowell and his ilk, this is especially true of the music business. Everyday pop discourse is shot through with knowledge of promotional tactics, commercial pressures and financial considerations. Artists talk about their careers like proud project managers, discussing their identity and place in the market with cloying self-consciousness, while fans are encouraged to think in similarly prosaic terms. You may hear the odd bit of music in X Factor guest-act intros, but the effect is overwhelmed by crashing statistical captions bragging about units sold, awards won, and hits had – a vernacular mimicked on the forums of the ‘latter-day Smash Hits‘ Popjustice, where the tone is often an emotion-laden derivation of industry-speak.
And that’s really the key shift here. As a kid, the charts were just there. Yes, I understood what they represented, but the thrill of taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening was at least partly conjured by suspense, surprise and the mysterious, unknowable ‘otherness’ that distinguished my favourite popstars and the realms in which they existed.
But that world is gone. In its place is a more pragmatic and, yes, adult understanding of how things work, which in turn has brought a changing sense of what represents success for my favourite acts. And that’s why, ever since I fell in love with them at Scala in 2005, I’ve always seen the Radio 2 ‘A List’ as Bellowhead’s ultimate destiny. Yes, they may yet go on to grander and greater things (and I’d bloody love them to have a number one) but for me, as a fan, this is the moment: a justice-done symbol of acceptance – of a trad folk act welcomed into the mainstream – which has left me feeling every bit as proud and triumphant as when a favourite single hit the top spot in the charts of my childhood.
Two evenings, two of my favourite folk bands, two album launches – two very different venues.
On Wednesday, it was Bellowhead at the Monto Water Rats, unwrapping new album ‘Broadside’ – arguably their most accomplished yet. I first saw the band at Scala in 2005 at two relatively sparsely-attended gigs when they were still carving out their niche. (The first time, perish the thought, many were still reading music off stands.) Times have changed since then, and the eleven-piece juggernaut is now more accustomed to playing big festivals and selling-out much larger venues. They even look set for a Top 40 – or better – debut in the album chart on Sunday, and have been playlisted by Radio 2: no mean feat for an act specialising in traditional (as opposed to ‘nu’) folk.
It was a privilege, then, to see them blaze through the new material in such an intimate venue. No matter that half the band were lost to the wings; the deafening volume and edge-of-the-seat playing – some of these songs sound really tricky to perform – made for a memorable night. Here’s some obligatorily scrappy video to
undermine illustrate everything I’ve just said about the magnificence of the occasion.
Last night, at the more refined King’s Place, it was Lau’s turn – a mind-bending trio from Scotland (x 2) and Cambridge (x 1). Like Bellowhead, I was lucky enough to see Lau not long after forming – at the Towersey Festival in 2006 – and feel an entirely unreciprocated (they don’t know me from Adem) pride in how they’ve grown and matured. The new album ‘Race the Loser’ is a corker, but also – like ‘Broadside’ – seemed challenging for even these most capable of musicians.
And that, I’ve come to realise over the last two nights, is the great charm of attending these album launches. You might not get ‘all the hits’, but what you do get is the thrill of seeing brilliant musicians challenged anew. As each band attempted complex, studio-devised numbers for the first time ‘live’, it was like rolling back the years to those early gigs when our paths first crossed: the players tentative, concentrated, and ecstatically relieved when ‘nailing’ the new numbers for the first time.
In the words of Bellowhead’s Jon Boden, on completing the full rendition of ‘Broadside’: ‘Phew.’