East Anglia’s appetite for the traditions of folk music arguably reached a peak with the Albion Fairs of the seventies, garnering a fan base in the region that remains undiminished to this day, which perhaps accounts for the huge crowd drawn to the tiny town of Diss to see Blowzabella. Straddling the Norfolk/Suffolk borders in the middle of nowhere, it’s not the sort of place you expect to find much more a few pubs and a burger van, and certainly not something as imposing as the Corn Hall. There are remodelled Corn Exchanges dotted all over the country - the term has almost become a synonym for Arts Centre - but while you expect temples to Victorian commerce in Cambridge, or Edinburgh, or Manchester, it’s a surprise to stumble across such a grand edifice (think porticos and Doric columns) in such a modest market town, dwarfing the neighbouring florist and pub, between which it appears to have been incongruously squeezed. Stranger still, when inside, to find a bar serving micro-brewery beer and posh lattes to a heaving and eclectic mix of chattering folk fans.
Inside the main hall a bewildering array of brass, woodwind and strings were set out in a semicircle, seemingly unattended, as an expectant crowd milled round and about. It’s only when the band unceremoniously shuffled on stage that it became apparent they had been mingling all along, in a spirit of congenial friendliness that proved typical of the evening. Blowzabella have been performing their very individual brand of music – a drone-based wall-of-sound that defies easy description – for forty years. While members have come and gone in that time, the group has lately enjoyed remarkable stability, something that evidentially contributed to the ease with which they played together, unperturbed that their nonchalant audience seemed in no hurry to join the party. But while the evening may have got started without fanfare or introductions, shortly afterwards something quite extraordinary happened.
As Gregory Jolivet’s hurdy-gurdy wound into life, quickly joined by David Shepherd’s violin and Andy Cutting’s accordion, the audience, as if they had previously rehearsed, started to pair off and dance round the room. There was something quite magical about the way this happened, like being caught up in a scene from La La Land. Middle aged couples rubbed shoulders with dreamy eyed young lovers while giggly ladies paired up, leaving their Easter Island statue men to nurse pints. As yet more joined in the swirling tide of good natured hoofers, those that remained stationary were pushed ever closer to the very edges of the room, tripping over themselves to make space, as the venue quickly divided into the many that danced, and the few that did not. Where did all these people come from, and how was it that they all seem to know the rules?
As the mesmerizing rhythms of Long Drive and new song Blackberry Fold gave way to Malique, there was more than a hint of Michael Nyman in the addition of brass from Freya, Paul James and Jon Swayne, while Barn Stradling pushed the tempo up a notch by swapping his bass for guitar. With everything now firmly in place, it was full steam ahead, with a Grenoside processional dance swiftly followed by a proper waltz (marvellously entitled Colin). Significantly, some of the strongest numbers of the evening were drawn from their new album (the first for many years). Aside from Blackberry Fold and Colin we were treated to the melancholy Camdence and, in tribute to Ralph Vaughn Williams, the haunting, and cheekily titled Lark Descending. Its testament to the confidence of Blowzabella that they are content to make audience participation such an integral part of their performance, but I do wonder if some of these songs would have benefited from an undistracted listen. Notwithstanding the uniform excellence of the playing, it sometimes felt as if the band were wittingly playing second fiddle, to coin a phrase, to the traditions they embrace.
Such musings were soon set aside, however, as the evening drew to a close with some old favourites from Blowzabella’s considerable back catalogue. Despite being on the move for nearly three hours, the audience showed little sign of flagging (something the band evidently appreciated). No doubt lubricated by the generous quaffing throughout, these last few numbers were accompanied by the increasingly undisciplined swaying of an audience linked by nothing but their pinky fingers, as they swirled about the hall in great curling arcs, sweeping up the last few remaining singletons. The evening had, with glorious abandon, turned from La La Land into a benign version of the Wicker Man.