Spiers and Boden are staunch regulars, and among the most familiar faces, of the English folk scene. With a sound as distinctive as their name, not unlike, as their website describes, a "two-man-one-man-band", the duo have been pumping a particular kind of ragged joy into English folk music for the past 15 years. Enlivening and enriching a genre that, despite its heritage, relies on reinterpretation and reinvention. Their gigs are always explosive good fun and so it was, in many ways with a heavy heart, that I set out to hear them play a final set in their spiritual home town of Oxford. It was here in 1999, at the now famous but sadly defunct, Elm Tree Pub, that Jon first met John and the fellowship that would later bring us the indomitable Bellowhead, was born.
The evening very much played to this sense of heritage and occasion, as it certainly turned out to be an all-Oxford affair. First among the city's contributors were the legendary Catweazle Club, hosting the event. Started by Matt Sage in 1994 as a place for people to gather, share their music, poetry and political ideals, it has been the place to go in Oxford for evenings of a quirky nature for the past 20 years. (If you haven't been to one of their evenings at the East Oxford Social Club then go - you really never know quite what to expect!) And secondly the support act, Magpie Lane (invited specifically by Jon and John to join them at the Town Hall), were further Oxford regulars; stalwarts of the English folk scene for the past two decades. The band provide inspiration and a real education in traditional tunes to all who listen to them, including the evening's headliners who, as John Spiers later admitted, "had nicked a couple of tunes off them."
Magpie Lane played a wonderful set to an enthusiastic crowd, cheerful despite the initial dearth of real ale. A run on beer at the beginning of the evening meant that more had to be ordered in for the interval, prompting one bar-tender to remark, "crikey you folk-y lot are serious about your ale aren't you?!" Yes. Yes we are.
At last, it was time for the boys to take to the stage and the excitement in the room was palpable as the crowd raised a cheer the likes of which I have rarely heard in a Town Hall. In fact the audience were on good form all evening, cheering and applauding every song to an extent pretty much unheard of at a folk gig. Over a delicious two sets, Jon and John delighted the crowd with old favourites such as 'Tom Paget' and 'Captain Ward', and of course raised the roof with the dance tunes that are such a speciality of theirs. The wonderfully, enigmatically named 'Three Tunes' got a large section of the seated crowd to their feet, and by the time the classic 'Sloe Gin' came round many people had abandoned their chairs altogether to clap and sway in the aisles. As usual the duo impressed with both the sheer scale of their talent (at one point John Spiers actually played the melodeon and the English concertina simultaneously - a feat that still leaves me flummoxed) and their ability to play a crowd; laughing and joking and catching even those new to their music up in the joyous roar of sound.
The thing that always strikes me about a Spiers and Boden gig is their ability to build the atmosphere and tension throughout two sets, to raise the adrenaline and enthusiasm of an audience over the course of a couple of hours to the point where they are literally stamping and screaming for more. The final song of their set saw the most spontaneous, organic and enthusiastic standing ovation I have ever seen and they emerged for two encores that were positively demanded and insisted upon by the crowd. 'The Prickle-Eye Bush', perhaps the duo's signature tune, was picked up and sung along to loudly and 'New York Girls' a Bellowhead favourite, saw people rushing to the front to polka up and down before the stage.
And so it was, elated and beaming, that I finally left the venue to reflect upon the evening. As a regular of the folk scene I have seen Spiers and Boden several times before over the years, at gigs and festivals, and after every set I am filled with the same emotions; joy, satisfaction, and a strange but desperate urge to spend every penny I have on seeing them again.
Sadly there is unlikely to be an 'again' for the foreseeable future, although of course this is not the end. Jon and John will still be travelling the country together with Bellowhead, a victim, in many ways, of their own success; with the big band taking up more and more of their time as it tours the country, currently promoting a new album, 'Revival', out in June.
So that's it for Spiers and Boden then, what a wonderful, wonderful farewell... now where do I get my Bellowhead tickets?!
Friday, 23 May 2014
Review: Spiers and Boden Farwell Tour at the Oxford Town Halltweet this!
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