CoreTalks: Brian Bell – How to Have Fun in Music and Engineering
If you ever feel the need to fit a quart into a pint pot, Brian Bell’s your man. He’s the bassist with the North East’s ceilidh supergroup Whapweasel and local folk-rockers Hadrian’s Union; a Morris dancer and a driving force behind the Hexham Morris Band; and in his spare time he is the Director of BT Bell Consulting Engineers, a busy civil engineering firm in Hexham that manages projects worth millions.
How does he fit it all in?
“It’s just so much fun!”
How does he fit it all in? “It’s just so much fun,” he says (though he does admit that almost every spare moment is a musical one).
Scruffy kid and a rough school
Brian’s career began at Blakelaw School in Newcastle. He played bass in a school band because no-one else wanted to and somehow blagged his way into helping out at gigs at the City Hall, where he saw almost every band touring in the 70s. “The real moment of discovery for me was hearing Steeleye Span play One Misty Moisty Morning on a quality hifi. I’d never heard anything like it before.” Steeleye’s bassist Rick Kemp was to become an important influence, later joining Brian as a member of Whapweasel.
“University took so much
time and attention that
the bass went under the
bed, then got sold.”
He started playing folk-rock semi-professionally in the pubs and clubs, earning £30 per gig. There was little time for schoolwork but, when the band split he saw no prospect of making a living as a musician so he knuckled down, got his A levels and a place at university.
“They were the fallow years, creatively” he says. “University took so much time and attention that the bass went under the bed, then got sold.”
Next came a directorship with Newcastle’s largest engineering practice, managing power station builds and major projects for RailTrack, before striking out on his own with BT Bell Consulting Engineers. He and his wife Valerie moved to Hexham when they started a family; she’s now the company secretary, his son Martin is a Chartered Engineer with the firm, and his daughter Heather, who plays with Whapweasel, is a GP. One BT Bell project familiar to locals is the new fish pass below the bridge at Hexham.
In the early days of BT Bell, being self-employed gave Brian the flexibility to return to music. One day he went along to a come-and-try dance session laid on by Hexham Morris, taking the then 7 year-old Heather along as an alibi in case he didn’t like it and wanted to leave early. That didn’t work: he was the only one who turned up and was immediately roped in.
And we’re back!
Several of the Morris men were also musicians and they had the appealing habit of getting together to make music and drink beer. One was melodeon player Robin Jowett and he and Brian decided they would form the best ceilidh band in the North Tyne area (there was only one other). This was the seed from which Whapweasel grew.
It was a bit like Dylan
going electric in 1965
Hexham Morris were dancing at festivals all over the country and Brian was hearing different musical styles. “Bands from the South had a completely different sound from traditional ceilidh bands in the North East – it was a young, dynamic scene,” he says. Whapweasel drew on those influences, incorporating drums and a bass to create a modern rhythm section that traditional bands didn’t use. It was a bit like Dylan going electric in 1965: “We were heavily criticised locally,” Brian says. “People said you can’t do the Dashing White Sergeant unless you play the right tune. We said you can, it’s the rhythm that’s important.”
The band was right and their popularity grew until they became a major draw at festivals. The line up has evolved over the years and Brian is now the only original member but they are still headlining. “We’re not doing as much as we used to but we’re still developing new material – we’ve spent the weekend doing just that,” Brian says.
Robin left Whapweasel in 2005 but he and Brian still played together and later joined Northumbrian folk band Devils Water. After another couple of years they joined up with Stew Simpson to reform his band Hadrian’s Union. Another festival favourite, the band are appearing at two great local festivals this year – Ireby, Corbridge and Music on the Marr at Castle Carrock – as well as doing other gigs (including Haydon Bridge on March 21st).
Supporting new musicians
Brian’s third band is a different kettle of fish altogether. As a self-confessed scruffy lad who went to a rough school, he was unimpressed by how snooty some musicians could be. “There was a period when folk became elitist, not encouraging new players,” he explains. “So we formed a band within the Morris Team to give new musicians the opportunity to be part of a band and do recordings, then go off and form their own band. It’s a project to bring on novice musicians – we welcome anyone who is keen to improve.”
“We formed a band within the
Morris Team to give new musicians
the opportunity to be part of
a band and do recordings, then
go off and form their own band.”
The band currently has twelve members, including experienced musicians (who play a different instrument from the one they’re competent on) and beginners. All performance fees are invested in the Hexham Morris Trust Fund to support the development of folk art locally. “It’s satisfying to get the support of serious musicians,” Brian says. “I don’t mind if people make mistakes if they’re trying and serious about improving.”
The perfection of imperfection
Brian sums up his approach to music as ‘the perfection of imperfection’. He’s not a fan of the pristine output of digital production with its potential to erase all the ‘errors’ in a performance. “Music needs to have some push and pull, not in a deliberate sense but in response to the feel and tension between players. That’s the beauty of live music.”
That belief is reflected in Brian’s advice for aspiring musicians. “It’s absolutely essential to get together with other people – Core Music is a grand place to meet them. By all means practise your instrument on your own but you don’t get anything back until you start playing with other people.”
YouTube: Hadrian’s Union
Facebook: Hexham Morris
BT Bell Consulting Engineers
Ireby Festival 2019: www.irebyfestival.co.uk
Music on the Marr 2019: www.musiconthemarr.com
Steeleye Span play Misty Moisty Morning: https://youtu.be/heCWKiII29A