On his first solo tour the erstwhile voice and frontman of Bellowhead, Jon Boden, has not lost his flair for the dramatic. There’s a variety of stage lighting, and props: ragged looking speakers and decorative battered loud speakers as well as the tour image -Jon Boden as Icarus lifted on wings made from violins. This last is present as a larger than life silhouette suspended over the back of the stage, to be lit to match the moods of the songs. Jon Boden has always brought this sense of drama to his reinterpretations of folk song – and on guitar, concertina and fiddle there is plenty of folk tonight – and it fits well with Jon Boden’s solo work. There would be several from Songs from the Floodplain and even more from the decade old Painted Lady including all three of the new bonus tracks included for its recent re-release.
Jon Boden made a couple of references to the presidential election result, noting as a preface to We do what we can that there’s no choice but to make the best of events – and the song seemed particularly relevant in this context: “Reaper’s in the whitened harvest / Beggar on the hill / Doctor, Lawyer, Preacher / Swallowing a bitter pill”. There wasn’t time to dwell for too long on the wrong result though, with the atmosphere lifted by choice cuts from Bellowhead’s repertoire, mostly in the form of shanties – which produced a little audience response – such as Roll Alabama, the lovely fiddle led Roll the woodpile down and All hang down which also has a rolling theme – “We’ll roll the old chariot along” – in the chorus . All hang down has an interesting history – starting life as a temperance march it was adopted first as a drinking and then a working song before being reworked by Boden to give it a modern pop sensibility.
Blue Dress is a slow ballad celebrating memories of youthful passion, and long term love. The guitar accompanied Old Brown’s daughter for all the folk resetting can’t throw off the obvious origin in Music Hall, even with its original jaunty – and one suspects bellowed choruses – slowed down to a more thoughtful pace. Boden’s own Has been cavalry is the song of the evening. Taken from his suit of post-apocalyptic songs captured on Songs from the Floodplain it offers a series of scenes that describe a stoic response to the desperation inspired by a world which appears to be designed slowly grind the individual down. All the finery of hope, love and faith is revealed to be just a cruel illusion: “I went to church again today / the preacher was welcoming / I smiled through my disbelief and prayed / And I watched my words soar heaven bound / And a light was growing in my eyes / But you’ve seen one God and you’ve seen them all / They’re not all they’re dressed up to be / they strut their feathers in the dust bowl parade / and line up in the has been cavalry”. And if the reworking of I want to dance with somebody doesn’t quite shake off its pop origin, there’s no doubting the heroic success of the final encore – which gained full throated chorus support from the crowd – New York Girls, a morality tale set to a polka, warns sailors fresh ashore of the dangers of getting drunk and over-friendly with ladies you’ve only just met “when I awoke I had an aching head / there was I, Jack, all alone stark naked in the bed / my gold watch and my money and my lady friend all were gone / there was I, Jack, all alone stark naked in that room”. There’s a timeless lesson here that we can all learn from.
Jon Boden solo is certainly something not to be missed, a variety of instrumentation and song, the dramatic gestures of a rock concert – not something you often get from a solo folk performer – and an engaging stage presence. If you’re still in mourning for Bellowhead – and why shouldn’t you be ? – then take heart in this new incarnation of one of the band’s lynchpins.