AFTER years of speculation, English folk duo Spiers & Boden are back together.
Last month came the album Fallow Ground on the Yorkshire label Hudson Records: the herald to a 23-date autumn tour that visits Pocklington Arts Centre for a sold-out 8pm show on Wednesday.
First forming the duo in 2001, melodeon and concertina player John Spiers, now 46, and singer, fiddler and guitarist Jon Boden, 44, became leading lights in pioneering big folk band Bellowhead, resting their “double act” in 2014 before the Bellowhead juggernaut roared off into the sunset in 2016.
“We always thought of it as a hiatus rather than us ending the duo in 2014,” says Boden. “We stopped because Bellowhead were taking over. We were fighting against the tide in terms of time being available and media attention.
“It felt like the right time to focus on Bellowhead, but that said, since Bellowhead’s finale, we seem to have taken it in turns to be busy. When I was busy, working with The Remnant Kings, John wasn’t; when he was, I was twiddling my thumbs, and then along came the pandemic.”
Boden duly completed his post-apocalyptic trilogy with his fifth solo album, Last Mile Home, recorded in Spring and Summer 2020 at home and in a Sheffield industrial unit for release in March with its theme of a walk through wasteland to a mystical coastal destination with messages of hope and renewal en route.
“The last album in the climate-change concept trilogy, set a few years’ hence, is more nature focused, describing an older couple who have lived in the wild by themselves for years and are now making a valedictory journey from moor to coast,” he says.
“Certainly, in my mind, it’s about walking from Sheffield to the Lincolnshire coast, but I’m also interested in the idea that if you’re using an album as a format for telling a story, you can leave a lot more gaps for people to fill in the story for themselves.”
Once Boden’s trilogy was complete, Boden & Spiers set to work on resuming their fiddle and melodeon partnership. “The last time we were seriously putting original material together, before Vagabond [their fifth album, released in 2008], we were both living in Oxford, meeting once a week,” says Boden.
“This time, we decided pre-pandemic to start up again, and then had to come up with slightly more thought-out suggestions before taking it further, at first meeting up in a strictly distanced format.”
Recording sessions subsequently took place between lockdowns. “We decided it shouldn’t be a radical departure from before, but traditional or in the tradition. We wouldn’t be doing a thrash metal rock opera or anything like that. It would be in a familiar vein,” says Boden.
“It’s such a long time since we came up with anything new that it’s just exciting to be working together again.”
They settled on a combination of rambunctious melodies and contemplative ballads, mixing Morris tunes with tunes brought to the 21st century from dusty manuscripts, bolstered by their own gift for conjuring tunes.
Spiers “used his intuition” to finish off Bampton fiddler William Henry Giles’s incomplete Funney Eye, discovered in a 19th century manuscript; Bluey Brink finds the duo dipping into the Australian folk world for the first time, from the repertoire of Peter Bellamy, complemented by Bellamy’s Butter And Cheese in a version by Sam Larner known as The Greasy Cook, The Cook’s Choice or, more intriguingly, Cupboard Love.
The title track, also known as As I Stood Under My Love’s Window, or more prosaically The Cock, is an unusual traditional love song, neither boasting of conquest, nor lamenting betrayal or abandonment.
Original composition Bailey Hill/Wittenham Clumps combines a tune by Boden with one by Spiers, both parts taking a name from a hill with significance for the duo, while Giant’s Waltz/The Ironing Board Hornpipe was inspired by the Giant’s Causeway. Spiers contributed The Fog too.
The Fallow Ground title refers not only to Spiers & Boden’s 2014 decision to put the duo to one side but also to the pandemic’s impact, drawing a red line through concerts for months on end.
Nevertheless, the album strikes a positive tone. “I guess we were looking for songs during lockdown with a sense of fun and light relief,” says Boden. “I realise that there are zero songs about death on Fallow Ground, which is probably a first and may get us expelled from the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Yes, these are traditional songs with a joyous edge.”
Such positivity mirrors Boden’s tone on his climate-change trilogy. “I started off by assuming the first album [2009’s Songs From The Floodplain] might be quite dark and dystopian, but half way through I found I was being drawn to an almost utopian ideal of existing in the moment, existing within nature,” he says.
“It ended up being, not celebratory, but more optimistic, not about climate change, but for the human possibilities of adapting and finding positive solutions.”
Now, a mood of celebration does apply as Spiers & Boden return to the road, but how would Boden define the two-decade chemistry that has sparked up once more? “It’s such a subtle thing with folk-tune playing, particularly with English tunes, where it’s about swing but not too much swing,” he says.
“You think about how other melodeon players might play, but with us, it’s all about how much swing to put in, and that’s because I learned to play English tunes with John, where previously I played Irish tunes.
“There’s a thing about the melodeon and fiddle in that each instrument does what the other can’t do, so there’s no fighting over territory because they do such different jobs, and that’s why they are the perfect match – and why there have been so many fiddle and box duos.
“The reason we clicked together from the beginning is that we recognised something in each other’s approach; something I was doing with songs and he was doing with tunes, though I’ve now got more involved with the tunes and John with the songwriting.”
Meanwhile, should you be wondering whether Bellowhead will ever play together again, keep up! They already have for a one-off concert streamed worldwide by Stabal TV in December 2020, marking the tenth anniversary of their third album, Hedonism.
The live session recording at a mansion house near London has now been released this summer as an album, Reassembled, on double LP vinyl , CD and digital formats.
“Andy Mellon, our trumpet player, was busy writing for the BBC so he felt he wouldn’t be able to get match-fit to play together again, but the rest of us managed to squeeze in the concert between lockdowns, and it was great to play again,” says Boden.
“I was a bit worried, thinking, ‘how will it feel when we’re having to keep two metres apart and there’ll be no-audience’, but it was absolutely brilliant. Just such a joy, after nine months, to be able to play music with people in the same room and especially with people who hadn’t played together for five years.
“We just had to remember not to stand too close to each other, and the remarkable thing was just how well we played, maybe because we were all nervous about it, so we all worked really hard in preparation.”
Spiers & Boden play Pocklington Arts Centre on Wednesday at 8pm; doors, 7.30pm. Sold out.
One final question for Jon Boden:
You composed the scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of The Merchant Of Venice in 2011 and The Winter’s Tale in 2013 (toured to the Grand Opera House, York, that March). Will there be further theatrical collaborations, Jon?
“I’ve done bits and bobs of theatre since then, most recently for Goat & Monkey’s national tour of Toby Hulse’s play The Pirate Cruncher in 2019. That was great fun, and I’m still in touch with theatre friends, but nothing ever quite happens, even though we say, ‘oh, we must do something’.
“The problem has always been – and a lot of musicians find this difficult – the time scale involved because, surprisingly, theatre is done within a much smaller time frame, bringing the cast and creative team together only three months before the production, sometimes less, whereas bands book gigs 18 months in advance, so there’s often an unavoidable clash of commitments.”