When we heard that the final Bellowhead gig ever* was going to be in Oxford, in the Town Hall, on the first of May… it all sounded a bit too good to be true.
If that doesn’t mean anything to you: Bellowhead have been so much more than the most popular folk band in England. Never mind that they won award after award, and got signed to a major label, and were generally considered the best live act in the country by folk and non-folk pundits alike… they just set the agenda. Every album they released simultaneously opened doors for what’s possible with traditional music, and closed other doors because “we can’t do that or it’ll sound like we’re trying to be Bellowhead”. For me personally, they were the band that sparked my interest in traditional English music, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen them live. And some of those times were better than others, but even the worse times were a better live experience than most bands on a good night.
But it held more significance for me. The first time I ever saw them live was 10 years before, almost to the day, in the same venue. And on that dancefloor I met a group of friends who got me into folk festivals and eventually playing in the band for Armaleggan. So it was kind of a big deal.
In fact, let me show you a little video from my old undeleteable YouTube account, that I made about the joys of Bellowhead, back in 2008.
As is always the case with these things, tickets were to be made available on a weekday morning. Hannah and I did our best, asking anyone we knew who might be near a computer and able to book them. But, as is always the case with these things, the site seemed to crash and by the time our contact got through they were all gone. And not just the last date of the tour, but other dates too. It was just crazy. Indeed, members of the band took to Twitter to express their shock and disappointment that so many hardcore fans hadn’t stood a chance of buying tickets.
But I wasn’t surprised. Or even upset, strangely. To me it had always seemed like a lottery ticket. The chances were going to be infinitesimally small. And anyway, it was on the evening of May Day, and May Day in Oxford is always crazy – particularly if you’re involved in Morris dancing. I usually want to collapse at about 5pm and am not good for anything else after that.
That said, as the day approached… I did start to feel maybe a little pang. Hannah had only seen Bellowhead once before, and not in a great venue. This would clearly be an amazing night.
I just tried not to think about it.
So it came to May Day, and there we were, in kit, stumbling round town consuming silly amounts of alcohol when the sun was barely in the sky. And we happened to traipse past the Town Hall. There, of course, was the big Bellowhead tour bus, and who should be standing beside it but Bellowhead’s singer, Jon Boden. We fell on him like dogs, obviously, with our battle cry of “Tickets! Tickets! Where can we get tickets?!” He laughed in the polite way that a person does when surrounded by drunk people in fancy dress, and we chatted briefly, and then headed off to the next dancing spot.
And that’s when the sense of disappointment at missing this frankly historic gig really started to set in. It had been fine because I’d managed to avoid thinking about it. But I realised that I was going to wake up tomorrow to reams of posts on social media from all my friends who had been there.
We wound up with our Morris duties, and Hannah and I headed home. I showered, took my skeleton face make-up off, got changed and crashed on the sofa. Hannah put some dinner on.
Hannah was just really sad about it by this point. I kept repeating my theory that…
* being a large successful folk band, they would stay split up for about 5 years and then reform and play together forever, so we’d have plenty more opportunity…
This was a moderately successful tactic at best.
Less than an hour before the support act was due to go on, I saw a tweet from Chris of the band Threepenny Bit.
It said that Bellowhead had held back 50 tickets, and they were selling them on the door. Like, now.
I nearly didn’t mention it to Hannah, because the chances still seemed only marginally improved. But I did.
After some frantic texting and phoning, we found out from Josh ‘Mando’ R-H that yes, they were selling them, but only to people who were present. In other words, they weren’t letting people buy tickets in bulk for anyone who wasn’t there in person.
So we still seemed to be screwed.
Then Hannah came up with a brainwave. “Angie is going, right?” Yes. “Well… she’ll be able to somehow magically make it work, right?” She messaged Angie. Angie was there, not far from the queue, and said she’d see what she could do. I was encouraging, but not altogether optimistic. I had resigned myself to our fate.
“Come on Angie…” Hannah said, “I believe in you…”
What can have been no less than sixty seconds later there was a knock on the door. We opened it, to find a mouse in the corridor. Standing on its hind legs. And wearing a tuxedo. It held up a postage stamp, and flipped it over. On the back of the stamp was written the words “Hannah and James?” We both looked at each other in amazement, and then turned back to the mouse and nodded. The mouse then gestured with its tiny paw for us to follow it, which we did. Outside was an enormous 18th Century carriage in gilt silver and oak, drawn by fourteen swans that were the size of emus. Without saying a word, we followed the mouse into the carriage, closed the doors, and sat down. The swans began to beat their wings in unison, and before we knew it, we were in the air. When we eventually found Angie in the St Aldates Tavern opposite the Town Hall, we asked her in amazement how she had managed to arrange a flying coach staffed by magical animals. She just winked.
I might have employed a little bit of artistic license in the description of that last bit. But the long and short of it is that Angie sorted it all out, and we’re still not entirely sure how she did it.
So there we were, coincidentally standing next to some of the people I had first met at that gig 10 years ago. And it was every bit as magical as you would expect.
I think because we were so surprised and amazed and grateful to get into the gig, I wasn’t really hit by the sadness of the event until it was all over. I bumped into Christopher from Bright Young Folk on the way out, and found myself saying that it somehow felt like a match where the home team had lost. Everyone milling outside seemed to be in a teary state of shock. Who would replace this band, that for over a decade had been the guarantee that days spent in a campsite at any given folk festival would be more than worth it? Who could capture that energy, and could work an audience in such an epic and wonderful way?
This is the picture that summed it all up for me.
That and Paul Sartin. Paul Sartin was the Bellowhead band member who would always deliver the most sarcastic and cynical song intros. He seemed to be the band joker.
As the band filed offstage after the final bow, he was the last to leave. As he climbed the stairs, he turned and gave the audience one last long look – visibly on the verge of tears. And then he turned round, and disappeared.