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Bellowhead star to perform first solo album, inspired by the remarkable story behind his violin

Posted on 24 April 2019


Bellowhead star Sam Sweeney is performing his first solo album, inspired by the remarkable story of his 100-year-old violin, at Sage Gateshead on Saturday May 4.

A veteran of the mighty Bellowhead’s domination of British folk for 10 years, artistic director of the National Folk Youth Ensemble and founder member of the acclaimed instrumental trio Leveret, Sam Sweeney is a superb instrumentalist at the forefront of the revival in English traditional music.

The music on his first solo album ‘The Unfinished Violin’ centres around the history of a fiddle he came across and bought in violin maker Roger Claridge’s shop in Oxford when he was 19 years-old.

Made but not assembled by one Richard S Howard of Harehills, Leeds, in 1915, Claridge had come by it at auction, in pieces, in an old manila envelope, and put it together and put it on sale. It’s the instrument Sweeney has used for numerous albums and countless gigs, and in time he set about digging into its history. He eventually uncovered the fateful tale of Richard Howard, a music hall performer called up in 1916 to the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment to fight. He lost his life in the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

Island Records invited Sam to create an album of the kind of music Richard Howard’s violin would have played had it been assembled at the time of its making.

“I said, give me a few days to think about it, because I really didn’t want to create a jingoistic, patriotic album,” he said. “But after some research, it was very clear that there would be loads of great tunes, and great stories.”

Last summer, Sam visited the battlefield.

“They had arranged a Richard Howard walk, and we visited loads of important sites connected with the Battle of Messines,” he said.

“There were about 100 people with us and we ended up at his grave. His granddaughter read a poem, I played the fiddle, and a bugle player played The Last Post.”

The tune Sam played, from Howard’s regiment, was the beautifully mournful ‘The Wellesley’, which is also one of the 16 tracks on The Unfinished Violin. The Wellesley was the march Richard Howard himself would have heard as a recruit to the Duke of Wellington’s regiment.

“Playing that over Richard Howard’s grave was incredibly emotional,” said Sam.

 We were all just stood there, sobbing. He was unknown, no one knew anything about him, no one would ever have visited his grave, ever, and all of a sudden, there I was, playing his fiddle to him. And there’s going to be a march every year to his grave, and people are laying flowers there. It’s amazing.”

Since joining Bellowhead as a teenager, Sam rapidly established himself as one of the great instrumentalists in contemporary folk. The Bellowhead call came just as he was starting at university.

Sam said: “I did the folk degree for just 17 days. I knew that all I wanted to do was play the fiddle for a living and I knew I didn’t really want to go to university, and then I got offered my first Bellowhead tour, which was during Freshers’ Week, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to go, so I ignored them and went anyway! And then I left the university 17 days later and joined Bellowhead full time.”

Alongside Bellowhead duties, he’s also released two albums with Hannah James, appeared on albums and stages with the likes of Eliza Carthy, Fay Hield and Sam Carter, been a part of the acclaimed Full English project, won the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Musician of the Year, and since 2014 has toured and recorded with Rob Harbron and Andy Cutting as Leveret.

Rob Harbron, along with guitarist Jack Rutter, pianist Becky Price, double bassist Ben Nicholls and a brass and string section, appear with Sam on The Unfinished Violin.

At 6.45pm there will also be an informal pre-concert talk, free to ticket holders, where Sam will chat about the story behind the album, how he put it together and made the tunes come alive.

For detailed information and tickets visit www.sagegateshead.com