Blowzabella celebrates forty years on the English scene, which is marked by a new album, a tunebook and major tours throughout 2018.
Blowzabella is an English band who play bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy and an array of acoustic instruments to produce a driving, drone-based sound influenced by British and European traditional dance music. Many of their tunes have become standards in the modern folk repertoire. Bands who experiment with the boundaries of folk music often cite Blowzabella as a major influence.
Blowzabella was formed in Whitechapel, east London in 1978 by Bill O'Toole (bagpipes, flutes) from Sydney and Jon Swayne (bagpipes, flutes) from Glastonbury, both students of musical instrument making at the London College of Furniture in London. The band's name was taken from an English jig (and bawdy drinking song), "Blowzabella My Bouncing Doxie", popular in the late 17th century and early 18th century. One of the founder members, Bill O'Toole discovered the tune while researching potential bagpipe repertoire in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. The name, with its combination of "blow" and "bella", summed up the band's sound.
The first line-up was Bill O'Toole, Jon Swayne, Chris Gunstone (bouzouki, tapan), Dave Armitage (melodeon, bombarde, percussion) and Sam Palmer (hurdy-gurdy). Juan Wijngaard (hurdy-gurdy, Flemish bagpipes) and Peter Lees (hammered dulcimer) played a few concerts with the band in the early days. In late 1979 Bill O'Toole returned to Australia and was replaced by Dave Roberts (melodeon, percussion).
In 1980 Dave Armitage left the band and Paul James (bagpipes, woodwind) and Cliff Stapleton (hurdy-gurdy) joined. The band recorded their first album Blowzabella in 1982 with Chris Gunstone, Paul James, Dave Roberts, Sam Palmer, Cliff Stapleton and Jon Swayne. Chris Gunstone left soon after and Dave Armitage rejoined the band for a brief period. In early 1983 Dave Shepherd (fiddle, five-string fiddle, viola d'amore) joined. He had previously played in bands with Dave Roberts and Paul James. The band recorded the album In Colour in 1983 with Dave Armitage, Paul James, Sam Palmer, Dave Roberts, Dave Shepherd, Cliff Stapleton and Jon Swayne and guests Max Johnson, Dave Mitchell, John Spires (of the Dead Sea Surfers) and Clash and Generation X drummer Terry Chimes. Later that year, after a tour that included a trip to play at Vancouver and Winnipeg folk festivals, Samuel Palmer left. In 1984 the band recorded album Tam Lin with Frankie Armstrong and Brian Pearson, and the album Bobbityshooty with Dave Armitage, Paul James, Dave Roberts, Dave Shepherd, Cliff Stapleton and Jon Swayne. In 1985 Dave Armitage and Cliff Stapleton left and Nigel Eaton (hurdy-gurdy) and Ian Luff (bass guitar, cittern, mandola, darabuka) joined the band and they recorded the album The Blowzabella Wall of Sound in 1986 with Nigel Eaton, Paul James, Ian Luff, Dave Roberts, Dave Shepherd and Jon Swayne.
In 1987 they recorded the live album Pingha Frenzy while on tour in Brazil for the British Council with Nigel Eaton, Paul James, Ian Luff, Dave Roberts and Dave Shepherd. Jo Freya (vocals, saxophone, clarinet) joined Blowzabella before the recording of the album A Richer Dust in 1988 (credited as Jo Fraser on the album as this was before she assumed her stage name Jo Freya) which also saw the return of founder member Jon Swayne to the line-up. Andy Cutting (diatonic button accordion) joined in 1989 and appears on the album Vanilla recorded in 1990 with Andy Cutting, Nigel Eaton, Jo Freya, Paul James, Ian Luff and Jon Swayne. This line-up toured frequently in Britain and Europe and made many festival appearances.
The pressure of constant touring led to the decision to take a break from December 1990. In 1996 Dave Roberts died. The line-up of Ian Luff, Andy Cutting, Jon Swayne, Nigel Eaton and Dave Shepherd continued to play a few concerts a year from 1995. In 2003 Paul James organised some concerts to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Blowzabella. Andy Cutting, Nigel Eaton, Jo Freya, Paul James, Ian Luff, Dave Shepherd and Jon Swayne played several festivals and performed together at a special reunion concert in Bath in September 2003 with guest appearances by Dave Armitage, Bill O'Toole and Sam Palmer. At the end of 2004 Nigel Eaton left the band and was replaced by Gregory Jolivet, from Bourges, France. In December 2005 Ian Luff left and was replaced by Barnaby Stradling on bass guitar.
Since January 2006 the line-up has remained the same. In July 2007 the band released the album Octomento, their first album of new material since 1990. This was followed in June 2010 by the live album, Dance and an album of new and traditional material Strange News in October 2013. The band continues to tour, compose and record.
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Date: March 2018.
Photo Credits: Blowzabella: (1) Folk East 2016 (by The Mollis), (2) Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015 (unknown/website), (3) Rudolstadt 2003 (by Walkin' Tom), (4) "Two Score" (unknown/website).