In Oxford to promote his new anniversary release of his rare debut solo album Painted Lady, it was clear from the moment Jon Boden walked onto the O2 Academy stage that it was going to be an enjoyable, successful night. With his strong Oxford roots (in the audience that night was Jon Spiers, other half of their successful duo Spiers & Boden) it was clear the audience was on his side—Boden even dropped a rye mention of his years “spent living in the Half Moon pub”, raising a cheer from his old landlord in the audience. It felt less a formal performance and more a gathering amongst friends—only enhanced by the ease and grace with which each song flowed out from Boden with skill and beauty that can only be expected from such a formidable musician. Described as “the stand out traditional folk performer of his generation”, Boden has gone from strength to strength, performing with his own band The Remnant Kings, becoming lead singer of the multi-award winning Bellowhead and still somehow finding time to release solo albums that push the boundaries of the folk music genre. This rich tapestry emerged throughout the night, as Boden mixed songs from Painted Lady with older, more recognisable hits from Bellowhead performances—raising cheers and spontaneous singalongs from the audience.
Boden’s release Painted Lady, remastered with new material, contains his unmistakable, unique sound – and gives a fascinating glimpse at his early work. Almost completely self-penned, each song is masterfully crafted to give a nod to Boden’s wide breadth of instrumentation and vocal skills, from the high-powered romp and electric guitar riffs of ‘Pocketful of Mud’ to the gentle fiddle-driven lullaby of ‘Ophelia’. This album includes glockenspiel, Indian harmonium, Moog synthesiser, a drum machine, octave fiddle… but under Boden’s careful eye and accompanied by his distinctive voice, each varied song on this album manages to come together to make perfect sense as a revolutionary piece of folk music.
Boden brought his ingenious, creative approach to music to life in his performance, linking his shruti box to a pedal on one foot and stomping out a beat with the other, allowing him to create a recognisable all-around sound that was completed with fiddle and distinctive voice. Nothing seemed too far for Boden – whether it was singing accompanied merely by handclaps, or performing a cover of Whitney Houston’s 80s hit ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ (one of the new, bonus tracks on Painted Lady), the music electrified the audience and held the room in silence.
Boden’s creativity and versatility when approaching traditional music, which comes shining through on tracks from his latest album such as ‘All Hang Down’ (an interpretation of a temperance movement song that was transformed by sailors into a drinking shanty), managed to breathe energy into these old tunes and get the crowd dancing and swaying in time with his beat. Whether it was his slightly over-long ballad about shipwrecks that ended the first half of the performance, or his own personal songs from his concept album Songs from the Floodplain, exploring the idea of folk music in a post-apocalyptic world, Boden’s infectious joy and enthusiasm got the whole room singing along and stomping their feet, and left me with a grin on my face for the rest of the evening. After all, in the words of Boden himself, “it’s only the good times that can make the bad times seem so far away”—and that’s exactly what this music does. As well as standing as testament to his mastery and love of the folk music genre, Painted Lady reflects Boden’s early efforts to stretch and question its boundaries: a desire that has taken him far, and, as shown by his performance at the O2 Academy, has led him to become one of the most accomplished folk musicians of our time.