Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite junkerdash (psychedelic swamp-shack rags) band Hillfolk Noir attack the UK on three fronts this month with these two releases and a tour that commences today and which packs in 18 shows in 19 days including a sweep through Scotland. Perhaps the finest proponents of old time jugband, folk and blues songs around these days their previous albums have all had a no frills approach to the recording process, clutched around the one mike, recording in a penitentiary or mimicking pre war radio shows as on their last album Radio Hour. Radio Hour featured a six piece line up but What’s That Hat For? finds them slimmed down with bassist Michael Waite supporting Allison and Travis Ward with a subsequent slimmed down sound. Nevertheless the three of them still manage to whip up a stirring feast with lashings of slide guitar, banjo picking, washboard, harmonica, snare drum snaps, singing saw and rough and ready vocals.
While there’s a slightly heavier reliance on driving acoustic blues hollers than on the previous albums with the opening song Goin’ Out West a perfect example they still deliver some excellent jugband delicacies such as their vibrant rendition of You’re A Viper while the very brief instrumental Zone-d is a zany goofball of a tune. There’s even a touch of skiffle on the closing Little Black Train but it’s on songs such as Cluck Old Hen and the cautionary tale Drugbust that they display their almost telepathic empathy and capacity to sound ragged and loose while being as tight as a duck’s proverbial behind. If you want a definition of good time music you’ll find it here.
As if What’s That Hat For? wasn’t enough Travis Ward steps out with a solo album of sorts, Jump Ups and Jollities. While he sings and plays guitar, jaw harp and banjo Allison Ward is in here with banjo, washboard and washtub so in essence it’s Hillfolk Noir slimmed down yet again. Less frenetic than Hat Ward utilises the talking blues technique on several of the songs here while others are reminiscent of old time folk troubadours. Recorded in two studio sessions there’s a live feel to the songs. While he can nail venerable old songs such as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Death Don’t Have No Mercy and So Long It’s Been Good to Know You Ward comes up with some crackers of his own. The Stranger and Rowdy McLeod sounds as old as the hills as Ward and banjo regale us with a classic tale of Western derring do, death and revenge. North of Appalachia and Old Pack River Road are both steeped in tradition while Crow Juice which lasts all of 30 seconds just about sums up old time Americana folk.
Pages From a Folk Singer’s Diary is a magnificent pastiche of sixties talking blues where he wonders if he should have been a film critic instead of a folk singer as he reminds us that Morricone did the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Pete the Hobo revisits the talking blues as Ward deconstructs the genre with a sly twist as he meets a transvestite hobo, very much in the same vein as Dylan’s Motorpyscho Nightmare this one raises a smile.
Both of these albums showcase the undoubted talent of Travis Ward and on the strength of these you’d be crazy not to catch him and the band ( who are touring as a trio this time). You can check the dates on their websitewebsite but they include Biggar, Edinburgh, Kilbarchan and Irvine.