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.’