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by Ian Mann

October 20, 2006


All in all then a good gig with some fine singing and adequate accompaniment. None of the band are instrumental virtuosos so the contribution of Ormrod adds greatly to their sound.

The Courtyard Centre, Hereford - 13th October 2006

It’s hard to believe that Chumbawamba have been going for over twenty years. They have certainly had an interesting career deliberately positioning themselves outside the rock mainstream and challenging authority at every turn. Despite all this they still ended up recording an enormous hit in 1997’s “Tubthumping” with its “I get knocked down, but I get up again” chorus. Much to the bands chagrin this became a favourite chant of football supporters everywhere, but it did seem particularly apposite to my beloved Hereford United. Appropriately enough the venue is directly opposite the football ground.

Chumbawamba were formed in Leeds in1984 and from the start were politically active.  They involved themselves in the miner’s strike playing benefit gigs and fundraisers and picketing on the front line. Not only did they take on the Thatcher government but they also challenged the rock aristocracy releasing the album “Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records” as a response to the commercial spin offs of Live Aid.

The band continued to develop musically and concocted a unique blend of folk harmonies and brass driven pop together with samples and found sounds. Musically inventive and always melodic they pastiched many musical styles but with their caustic social comment they always sounded exactly like themselves. In short it was a unique mix and garnered them a dedicated following.

In musical terms the most successful synthesis of Chumbawamba’s various styles was the “Anarchy” album from 1994. Its mix of great tunes and barbed lyrics make it a perfect blend of sweet and sour. At the time it was their best selling album to date and although “Tubthumping” was more successful commercially for me, “Anarchy” remains their high water mark.

For much of their career Chumbawamba were an eight piece band but their current acoustic line up sees them pared down to a quartet consisting of female singers Lou Watts and Jude Abbott plus the “blokes” Boff Whalley and Neil Ferguson on acoustic guitars and vocals. For the tour they are augmented by Richard Ormrod on accordion and vocals.

The bulk of tonight’s material is drawn from their excellent new album “A Singsong And A Scrap”. They have also revived tunes from their 1989 album “English Rebel Songs” which was in the same vein as the new album and there are a couple of other items from the back catalogue. “Tubthumping” is conspicuous by it’s absence.

“Jacobs Ladder” (from the album Readymades) is a spirited opener introducing the group’s new sound. The familiar four part harmonies are underpinned by the sparse backing of two acoustic guitars and Ormrod’s accordion. It makes a change from the dense musical stew of the old eight-piece line up.

An old favourite “Stitch That” follows, a wickedly humorous look at domestic violence and feminine revenge.

Next is “Song Of The Times” from the “English Rebel Songs” album. It is a rousing rallying call to the downtrodden.

A newer song follows. “Fade Away” from the new album is a wry look at an aging punk rocker, a rebel looking for a cause. In some ways it’s the sound of a band questioning their own relevance, particularly in an age when the Labour party has totally alienated the far left. Musically the song marks the first outing of the evening for Jude Abbott’s trumpet, a reminder of the band’s earlier sound.

“Walking Into Battle With The Lord” is a timely reminder of the dangers of fundamentalism. Sung accapella in the style of a hymn or spiritual it shows what fine singers they are. “Onward Christian Soldiers with irony” as they introduced it.

The old Copper Family song “Hard Times Of Old England” has been humorously updated to reflect contemporary events. Back in 1997 the band attracted national publicity by soaking John Prescott with a water jug at an awards ceremony. Even now they can’t resist a dig at him - “Why stick to one Jag when you can have two?” Or is it three Jags now? Not that Prescott needs anybody’s assistance to look foolish these days.

Chumbawamba’s punk roots are reflected by an accapella version of The Clash’s “Bank Robber”. A good one for a bit of audience participation.

“By And By” is a lament for Joe Hill the Swedish born, American based songwriter and union leader who was executed in Utah in 1915. His last words were “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organise”.

“Bella Ciao” is a traditional Italian anti fascist song that was sung by the partisans in World War 2. Again the lyrics have been updated. A simple but rousing song and a good one to close the first set with.

The second half kicked off with an old classic “Homophobia” from the “Anarchy” album. A well-constructed piece of social realism, it’s a sad reflection on society that this song is as relevant today as when it was first released.

“You Can (Mass Trespass)” tells of the mass trespass by ramblers on Kinder Scout in 1932. The modern “right to roam” owes so much to those early pioneers who took on the landowners and the law. Not the usual kind of subject matter for a pop song you might think but with it’s concise and poetic lyrics and catchy chorus this works brilliantly. The Chumbas have been proving for years that you can address serious social issues through the medium of popular song and still retain both melody and a sense of humour. They make a welcome change from the banalities of so many lyric writers.

“The Diggers Song” is another piece of social history looking at the role of the women of this 17th Century political movement.

“William Francis” tells the tale of the type of landlord The Diggers rebelled against. For all his wealth he became increasingly alienated and died alone, leaving his fortune to his horse. A swirling melody from Ormrod’s accordion propels another accessible history lesson.

“Learning To Love” is a satirical take on the type of war song that features the faithful virgin waiting for her loved one to return from the war. There are dozens of them. In this subversive version sung by Lou Watts she decides not to wait but puts it about with a succession of soldiers from various regiments. A darkly humorous little item.

“Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire” is a reminder of the real horrors of war and again uses humour as a weapon as the generals are lambasted for sending the rank and file to their deaths.

“Laughter In a Time Of War” opens the new album. Another anti war song, it also finds the band reflecting on their own image as issue laden curmudgeons. Music needs more grumpy old codgers if you ask me.

Another old classic from the back catalogue “The Day The Nazi Died” reflects on the fascists that came out of the woodwork on the death of Rudolf Hess. Again it still seems horribly relevant with the present increase in racial tension. This much-loved item provokes some audience participation from a handful of hard-core fans.
We all get to sing on the next number “On E Bay” divided into halves for the different vocal parts. Not a bad effort from the Hereford audience who’d loosened up a bit after an interval visit to the bar.

An extended version of The Beatles “Her Majesty” wrapped things up. Needless to say the sentiments were resolutely anti royalist.

A warm reception saw the band return for a version of “What Did you Do In The War?” Having had a go at the monarchy they finish up with a pop at the prime minister. “Tony Blair” is done in a cod doo wop style with the PM cast as a lying suitor.

All in all then a good gig with some fine singing and adequate accompaniment. None of the band are instrumental virtuosos so the contribution of Ormrod adds greatly to their sound. There was a good deal of humour in the show both in the songs and in the spoken introductions, though in the true folk tradition some of these were far too long and rambling. Some of the band’s targets are a little too obvious but at it’s best the group’s blend of social history and catchy tunes is thought provoking and highly invigorating. They still sound unique and totally English.

The atmosphere of the Courtyard’s main house perhaps worked against them. It is a very comfortable venue with good acoustics but the audience were a little subdued in the first half. The crowd loosened up after the break and the band certainly won them over. I’m sure there were a number of first timers tonight plus others who were expecting something more along the lines of the old electric line up. Personally I knew what to expect having seen them at The Big Session Festival at Leicester in the summer. I have to say I enjoyed them more there due to a combination of glorious weather, the whole festival atmosphere and the lusty audience singalongs fuelled by the special Big Session Ale. They are a great festival band as are their like-minded contemporaries Oysterband and The Levellers.

The Big Session Festival is co-ordinated and headlined by the Oysterband. The Oyster’s lead singer John Jones is a Herefordshire resident and was present in the audience tonight. Although he guests on “A Singsong And A Scrap” he couldn’t be tempted into joining the Chumbas on stage tonight, which was a shame. He said he preferred to relax and have a few beers - but I’ve never seen any previous evidence to suggest that he regards drinking and singing as mutually exclusive activities!

The Oysters will be touring throughout November and December and should have a new album out early next year. For details of this and next years Big Session Festival check out

Speaking to Jude Abbott after the gig she expressed a sincere admiration for The Courtyard declaring it a better facility than anything in Chumbawamba’s home city of Leeds. Sadly the Chumbawamba tour is now over (Hereford was the penultimate date) but they do play in London on November 3rd at the ‘Folk In The Fall’ event at the South Bank Centre- details from Tel 08703 800400

Details of Chumbawamba’s record releases can be found on the band’s website

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