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John Spiers 

"Melodeon player's face" and the origins of Bellowhead explained ...

Friday 16th October 2015

Heeley Institute, 147 Gleadless Rd, Sheffield, S2 3AF


Photographs - Ayse Balko

John Spiers dropped into Heeley Institute for a rather special gig as part of his pre-Farewell to Bellowhead tour.  One of the previous venues on the tour had been a laundrette!  (Actually, it looks pretty cool … check it out at … and book a service wash at the same time.)


Anyway, John was intrigued by the TalkingGigs concept and very happily entered into the spirit of it all, talking with Simon Keegan-Phipps (an old hand as a TalkingGigs “conversationalist”) in the first half about his early exposure to folk music through his morris dancing parents; his first and subsequent encounters with the melodeon; squeezeboxes in general; and of course Bellowhead.


Given his undoubted ability and reputation now – and of huge encouragement to the novice melodeon players in the audience (and there were at least two!) – it is interesting that he didn’t automatically find playing the melodeon easy.  But he recalled how it all suddenly clicked and made sense for him.  His ease with and knowledge of the instrument was really apparent as he took us through the basics of the melodeon.  You can check out Wikipedia for an authorised description of melodeons, but John’s clear explanations of the workings with short demonstrations of particular points made it all seem so easy!   Though he later noted how some combinations of right hand melody notes and left hand chords are impossible on standard melodeons – the right hand requiring a pull on the bellows while the left hand is needing a push – with particular songs and arrangements giving rise to “melodeon player’s face”!


Inevitably, people were interested in hearing about Bellowhead – both the human tales of the band and the musical intricacies of arranging songs for an 11 piece band.  The story of how he and Jon Boden conceived the idea and populated the band on a car journey from Oxford where they'd got off their day jobs early to go and play at a folk club in Cambridge, was a treat … the challenge being to put together a headlining band for Oxford Folk Festival run by Tim Healey.  Little did they know …


I’d loved him to have had time to expand on the melodeon’s spread across the world (as a relatively cheap instrument) and the subsequent links between cajun tunes and pieces from Norfolk!  But the first half was over – a wonderful mix of music and conversation.


The second half was John playing solo – some traditional tunes and some self-penned.  I must admit this was a real revelation for me.  The range and variety of pieces; the different moods and feelings – some highly danceable, some melancholy; the complexity and speed of some pieces (more melodeon player’s face!) … I don’t think I’d really appreciated just how versatile and evocative the melodeon can be.  And we even got one vocal piece – sadly/happily not a-ha’s Take On Me – and a tune on the concertina!


So thanks to John for a truly memorable evening.  Some fascinating insights into his music and the melodeon … and some great music.

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