Southern Fried Festival Perth.

This weekend sees the eighth Southern Fried Festival in Perth headlined by the PUNCH Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, McCrary Sisters and The Fairfield Four and featuring an all-women celebration of the songs of Dolly Parton.The Festival which was awarded the Scottish Event Awards Best Small Festival in 2014 takes place in Perth Concert Hall and other city centre venues. Other confirmed acts include Chris Smither, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Speedometer featuring James Junior,  Della Mae, Red Sky July, Dean Owens and the Whisky Hearts, Yola Carter, Amythyst Kiah, Meaghan Blanchard, Boogalusa, Wolftrain, The Holy Ghosts, JD &The Straight Shot, The red Pine Timber Company, The New Madrids, Dave Arcari and Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules.

Friday 31 July in Perth Concert Hall sees two of the most talked-about emerging Americana acts take to the stage in a unique double-bill. With interests spanning indie rock, folk, jazz, bluegrass and classical, US five-piece Punch Brothers dazzle with their virtuosic playing. They will be joined by Rhiannon Giddens who Southern Fried audiences will remember from Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.Combining gospel, jazz, blues, and country, plus a hint of proto-rock and roll, Giddens displays an emotional range to match her dazzling vocal prowess throughout.

A superb all-female line-up of singers and musicians will gather in Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 1 August for Because We’re Women: The Songs of Dolly Parton, a celebration of the songs and influence of the Queen of country. House band, bluegrass quintet, Della Mae, will back an array of vocal talent brought together specially for this show including latest Southern Fried discovery Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, Prince Edward Island’s Meaghan Blanchard (this year’s representative of Southern Fried’s partnership with the East Coast Music Association in Canada), Yola Carter formerly of Southern Fried favourites Phantom Limb, Samantha Crain and Nashville gospel legends, the McCrary Sisters, making a greatly anticipated return to Perth. The uplifting finale to the festival on Sunday is Rock My Soul, a celebration of the power and the glory of the black gospel tradition starring the McCrary Sisters, The Fairfield Four and guest singers.

The Salutation Hotel, a favourite after show haunt with Southern Fried acts, steps in once more to host Saturday and Sunday afternoon gigs as well as the iconic Late and Southern Fried gigs on Friday 31 July and Saturday 1 August after the main stage shows in Perth Concert Hall. The Late and Southern Fried line-up will include classic soul and funk from Speedometer featuring James Junior, Yola Carter, Meaghan Blanchard, Della Mae, Amythyst Kiah and Doug Seegers, an artist with a back-story that would grace any classic country song. Afternoon shows at The Salutation Hotel include Scottish Americana from Dean Owens and The Whisky Hearts with Ags Connolly on Saturday and an afternoon of world-class blues with solo sets from Alvin Youngblood Hart and Chris Smither on Sunday.

There will be an expanded line-up of smaller gigs in city centre venues, including a free launch party in the Twa Tams on Thursday 30 July and the Southern Fried Open Mic in Greyfriars Bar on Sunday afternoon. The Southern Fried outdoor stage returns for the second year showcasing the huge range and quality of roots talent on our doorstep, Perth Playhouse will host a film programme for the first time and, as ever, the whole festival is fuelled by the famous Southern Fried soul food and served up with a warm slice of Scottish hospitality.

Festival director, Andy Shearer, said:

“I am confident that Southern Fried 2015 is the most exciting line-up we’ve presented to date. At the heart of the festival, we have secured three completely unique show-piece performances for Perth Concert Hall.

“Our opening night sees the mouth-watering one-off double bill of two of the most talked-about young acts on the Americana scene, the amazing virtuosity of Punch Brothers and the wonderfully-expressive voice of Rhiannon Giddens. Saturday night brings the welcome return of our occasional tribute concerts to the great icons of American roots music and this time we’ll be exploring the treasure trove of songs written by Dolly Parton with an all-female line-up of superb musicians and singers. Bluegrass quintet, Della Mae, were recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top Ten acts of this year’s SXSW festival in Austin and will anchor the evening as our house band, backing an incredible array of vocal talent brought together specially for this show. We close the festival on Sunday with Rock My Soul, a celebration of the great depth and breadth of southern gospel performed for the first time outside the USA where it has been the subject of a highly-successful TV special on PBS. Starring the McCrary Sisters and the legendary acapella quartet their father sang with for many years, The Fairfield Four, Rock My Soul also features several guest singers and will provide a wonderful uplifting finale to a fun-filled weekend”

Andy continued: “Our mantra has always been that the song is the uniting factor across the many styles of music that Southern Fried embraces and this is amply reflected in these three headline concerts and throughout the festival line-up. Some superb songwriters exhibit their craft in the afternoon shows at the Salutation Hotel; Scottish Americana from Southern Fried perennial, Dean Owens, performing with a full band for the first time on Saturday and a superb afternoon of blues with solo sets from Alvin Youngblood Hart and Chris Smither on Sunday. The song remains the same for our late night shows at the same venue where the line up will include Yola Carter, Meaghan Blacnhard, Della Mae, Doug Seegers and Amythyst Kiah.There’s another new innovation, a film programme in partnership with the Playhouse Cinema.”

Tickets available from Horsecross Arts box office on 01738 621031

Here’s a snapshot of last years festival

(Thanks to Jon Langford for the Dolly painting)

Have Gun, Will Travel. Science From An Easy Chair. This Is American Music.

Florida band Have Gun, Will Travel make no bones about their fifth album, Science From An Easy Chair, being a good old-fashioned concept album. It’s fashioned around the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated 1915 attempt to cross the Antarctic, a venture which failed but with typical British aplomb was turned into a triumph as despite incredible hardship Shackleton and his men survived. An odd choice for an “alt-country” band from Florida to consider but apparently having written a song called True Believers Matt Burke sang it to his fiancé who thought the spirit of the song reminded her of a book she had read about the Shackleton venture. Burke read the book and transfixed decided to write some more songs based on the story eventually leading to the album as it stands. Having said that the album is not a linear telling of the story, rather Burke leads the band through the phases of the expedition, the gung ho we can do it bravado, the reality of being stuck in pack ice and losing their ship, the perilous journey thereafter and the eventual rescue with some songs descriptive, others impressionistic.

The good news is that the band are not shackled by the story and there’s no attempt to have a faux historical feel and no sea shanties. In fact, there’s little to differentiate much of the music here from their 2013 album, Fact, Fiction or Folktale other than the salty instrumentals Surrounded by the Pack and Fortifying The James Caird. Burke’s acoustic guitar and his voice lead the rhythm section while Scott Anderson’s excellent electric and lap steel guitars weave in and out throughout. There’s some extra layers in the form of mandolin, trombone, viola, trumpet, cello, harmonium and flute adding colour to the instrumentals and the opening (overture?) By Endurance We Conquer. Here the voice of Shackleton himself, setting out his aims, is accompanied by attractive rippling guitar and LA canyon harmonies before an insistent cello thrust adds some edge. On the remainder of the songs Have Gun, Will Travel manage to carry the thrust of the narrative while remaining distinctly an American band, singing about the frontier but this one’s the frozen south, not the Donner Pass. Spirit Of Discovery weighs in with some wicked lap steel on a supple Southern rocker that could have come from Tom Petty or the Drive By Truckers while True Believers belts along like a trucking song with the truckers replaced by a one for all and all for one shipshape lusty crew who bellow out the refrain over some turbo charged guitar licks. A banjo and wheezy accordion with sound effects breaks the mood as the ship is Surrounded By The Pack before the nervy thrust of Madhouse Promenade scoots into view. Another fast rocker it’s an adrenaline fuelled yelp which is variously frenzied and defiant as Burke sings
“this can’t be happening, won’t make it home again, we’ve got no chance of escape. We’re off the map again looks like we’ve reached the end, could this be our resting place?”
Despite this the defiant crew repeat their lusty refrain from True Believers and the explorers adjust to their predicament spending their time reading popular science essays of the time (a fact, they had a copy of biologist Ray Lankester’s collected essays which was called Science from an Easy Chair, hence the album title).

The album shifts mood thereafter reflecting the explorer’s experiences. As the ice pack eventually crushed and sank their ship they could only stand by and watch. The stoical farewell is captured to perfection on the sombre Goodnight Sweet Chariot with its curling guitars and organ fills. A beautiful song, its martial drumming and nod to the spiritual, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, summon up peril and death but the delivery is a delicate wonder and reminiscent of bands such as The Jayhawks and The Byrds (in Chestnut Mare times). There’s more delicate murmurings at the beginning of The Rescue Party which is a rich tapestry of guitars and slow weeping strings. The first step to rescue as Shackleton heads off for help, the song picks up pace towards the end as if the wind were carrying the song along with zephyrs of guitar spiralling upwards. For those left behind (read the story here for those who are lost by now) Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island imagines a Morricone styled exile with guitar shards firing over a desolate rhythm eventually giving way to an ecstasy of redemption as the crew again are able to sing their refrain. There’s a wonderful curtain call on the final song Bottom Of the World which retells the tale in summary with a fine folk like feel, spidery slide guitar and accordion along with a memorable chorus allowing it the sense that one might be in a tavern listening to one of Shackleton’s men recalling his adventure.

Overall Science From An Easy Chair is a bold adventure. There are songs in here that stand out well away from any concept with Goodnight Sweet Chariot the main contender. However there’s no denying the skill with which Matt Burke has woven the story into the songs (or vice versa) and at the very least having listened to the album and read the notes one is somewhat elucidated on a small part of polar exploration history. Apart from that it’s a crackingly good album.


Dean Owens. Into The Sea. Drumfire Records

Dean Owens recorded his second solo album, Whisky Hearts, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. For Into The Sea, his latest release he’s returned to Tennessee, this time Nashville, enlisting again the talents of Will Kimbrough along with appearances from Suzy Bogguss and Kim Richey. Although the Nashville connection (and Owens’ past with The Felsons) might lead one to expect a pedal steel adorned collection of country songs, instead, Into The Sea is a mature set of reflective songs that showcase his ever improving writing skills and vocals. As is often the case with Owens he delves into family memories and his roots in Leith. I’m sure someone somewhere must have said this of him; You can take the man out of Leith but you can’t take Leith out of the man.

The album opens with the wonderful Dora, a song that rings with faint echoes of Richard Thompson especially in the guitar chords as Owens delves into his family tree to tell the story of his grandmother, raised in a travelling circus. He follows with the grand sweep of Closer To Home which opens with strummed guitar before a folksy accompaniment adds a lift to the song. A yearning tribute to those soldiers who didn’t return from war the song gains a melancholic piano refrain as it soars towards the end. Owens sparkles when he is in nostalgic mood and Evergreen is a nod to his past as he sings,
“I remember you and me as we were that summer on the beach at Gullane”
on what turns out to be a fine love song with Kim Richey adding fine harmonies. Kids (79) again mines his memories, a school picture leading to recollections of old school friends and their chequered stories. With a degree of resignation and sadness the song gradually gives way to anger with guitar bursting in as Owens recites,
“Jimmy died at 20, Andy’s a drunk. Stevie’s still a good friend, Davy’s on the junk.”

There’s a cosy warmth to the soft acoustic rock of Virginia Street and Up On the Hill vibrates with shimmering guitars that slide and swarm around the vocals. A more subdued feel attends the organ draped It Could Be Worse which has a crumpled melancholic tenderness to it while Owens’ elegy for the late Michael Marra, Sally’s Song (I Dreamed Of Michael Marra) successfully marries Marra’s wearied delivery with more of Owen’s reflections on his own past as he again remembers past friends and times in a recently demolished housing estate. The melody and arrangement along with the lyrics are a fitting tribute to Marra and the closing words are obviously from the heart.

Owens hits a peak towards the close of the album with the guitar undulations that reverb gently through The Only One adding a fifties dreamlike quality to the song. Written for a friend whose partner had a terminal illness the song is masterful and evocative. There’s sadness sewn into the melody while the words convey the loss and sense of emptiness thereafter. Finally, there’s a bonus track tacked onto the end of the album, a reprise of a song from Owens first album, I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You. It’s a wonderfully woozy honky tonk waltz in the George and Tammy tradition and features Suzy Bogguss duetting with Owens and some insouciant whistling.

Owens will be appearing at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth next week and is also performing his show, Cash Back, Songs From Johnny Cash at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Dates here


Daniel Romano. If I’ve Only One Time Askin’. New West Records

It’s been a great year for new fashioned old fashioned country with Cale Tyson and Andrew Combs both releasing some spectacular sounds. Hot on their heels comes Ontario’s Daniel Romano with the glorious sweep of If I’ve Only One Time Askin’, a record stuffed full of romanticism, sorrow and grit and laden with weeping pedal steel and lachrymose strings. Romano’s been called a countrypolitan revivalist and while there are moments here when the strings well up there’s no saccharine involved, just a yearning and at times empty heart. He calls it Mosey music saying, “Mosey music is a study in contrasts. There’s glitz and grit, revelling and wallowing, wretchedness and showmanship. Mosey music’s pioneers wore their battered hearts on sequined sleeves.”

Supported by a fine cast of musicians (Kay Berkel on trumpet, accordion, and vocals, brother Ian Romano providing some drums parts, fiddler Natalie Walker, pianist Micah Hulscher, and pedal steel virtuoso Aaron Goldstein) Romano sings with an earnest baritone, never sobbing but emotionally in touch with the elements of a song allowing him to tug at the heartstrings when required. This is most evident on the cover of There’s A Hardship (rescued from a George Jones album), the wrenching Learning To Do Without Me and the immaculate Nashville waltz of The One That Got Away (Came Back Today). While most of the songs are of the broken heart variety Romano weaves some magic within and between the song selections. The opening strings of the opening song I’m Gonna Teach You are almost Mantovani in their lushness and strings reappear at the end linking into the next song, a trick repeated throughout the album although on each occasion they are somewhat off kilter. Meanwhile the sheer musical beauty of I’m Going To Teach you cloaks a heavy vindictiveness contained in the lyrics which is alarming in its intensity and lyrically Romano throws up some heavy hits elsewhere. On Old Fire Die, a savage dissection of a broken relationship swathed in swooning pedal steel and wistful accordion he has his erstwhile lovers say “ What do you get from loving me, why is our marriage in danger?…I get more happiness from a bottle and get more love from a stranger.” Simply devastating.

There’s some curdled country rock on the duet with Caitlin Rose that is Strange Faces and the title song recalls John Hartford with its ringing clarity and rippling guitars but Romano throws another ball out of left field on the rollicking tale of Two Word Joe. Joe’s a man reduced to two word sentences when his mind gave up after two failed relationships and his tale is delivered with a sardonic glee reminiscent of the late Shel Silverstein backed by Doctor Hook. Closing the album with the unabashed funereal sentiment of Let Me Sleep (At The End Of A Dream), delivered with a gorgeous pedal steel turn, Romano still has a cynical moment as he sees the rapture as, “when the horn blows and God turns away” A magnificent end to a magnificent album.


Here’s a short film recorded on Daniel Romano’s UK tour a year back. See if you can spot Blabber’n’Smoke pal Martyn Bonanza.

Anna & Elizabeth. Anna & Elizabeth. Free Dirt records

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle take the listener here on a ghostly trip through Appalachian music. Spare and stark, their voices ring out over skeletal banjo, fiddle and guitar backing on 16 songs that are as old as the hills. The a capella rendition of Long Time Travellin’ that opens the album setting the scene perfectly with an emotional hit similar to that of Ralph Stanley’s rendition of Oh Death. LaPrelle’s voice is laden with tradition, able, as the notes say, to nearly cut through bone while Roberts-Gevale softens the hard edge with her mellower delivery. The album is a journey through the past peopled with the ghosts of Dock Boggs, Frank Proffit and lesser-known singers such as Connie Converse and Ms. Martha Williams who was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937 singing Poor Pilgrim Of Sorrow, indeed the spirit of Lomax and his quest for traditional sounds looms large throughout.

Although there’s a solemn air to many of the songs such as Don’t want To Die In The Storm and Greenwood Sidey there’s a lighter air on the folky Won’t You Come and Sing For Me and Soldier and the Lady. Goin’ Across The Mountain is a glorious banjo driven breath of fresh air and Father Neptune has the simple beauty one associates with The McGarrigles or The Roches. Bare boned the album may be but they adorn the lengthiest song here, Orfeo, a take on the Orpheus myth found in the Child ballads with a misty uilleaan pipe accompaniment (played by Joey Abarta) before ending the song with a dolorous jig.

Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle are students of Appalachian music, studying old recordings and meeting the singers and musicians who survive today and one of those singers, Alice Gerrard (born 1934) guests on the album adding some vocals. The endeavour is a wonderful tribute to the past although as Anna Roberts-Gevalt explains “we try to express these songs in a way that people of today can feel connected to.” In that they have succeeded.


Tami Neilson. Dynamite!

We’re all used to the UK being somewhat behind the times when it comes to the Antipodes what with them celebrating New Year when we’re just getting out of our beds on 31st December. Well, in the case of Dynamite! we’re several months behind as this album was released in New Zealand around a year ago but is only now getting a UK release. Tami Neilson is garlanded in NZ, winner of their version of the Grammies on four occasions plus several song writing awards, not bad for a Canadian girl who grew up as part of her family’s country/gospel road show before moving down under after marrying a New Zealander.

Anyway, Dynamite! is a dynamite album, retro tooled from the cover art to the music to capture the bygone era of Sun Records and gutsy singers such as Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline as Neilson delves into rockabilly, country and soul with some panache, a down under Imelda May indeed. The ten songs here are all top notch. Neilson can sound ferocious, sultry, sassy or menacing as required while the band and production nail the sound. Big boned guitars, velvety pedal steel and rattling percussion with country fiddle here and there are all bundled up in a glorious noise that reeks of valves and old time radio broadcasts.

The album opens with the defiant clarion call of Walk (Back To Your Arms) with Neilson walking on the wild side as she defies family wisdom and goes back to a bad boy’s embrace. With its bluesy riff and sinister guitar it evokes images of lurid pulp fiction covers of the fifties. Come Over is a thrash of a song that is like a shot of adrenaline to the soul amplifying the likes of Brenda Lee to the nth degree. The following Texas is a reprieve as Neilson shifts into country mode with ease, the song a brilliant recreation of early sixties honky tonk country music and there’s more country on the loose limbed Honey Girl which has some rootsy fiddling and excellent fingerpickin’ guitar. Whiskey and Kisses is another country song but here we’re in saloon bar territory as Neilson is joined on vocals by guitarist Delaney Davidson for a tearstained lament in the best George & Tammy tradition. Neilson shares vocals again with Davidson on the dramatic Running To You which is a driving romantic narrative in the vein of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra or Calexico on The Ballad of Cable Hogue and which sends shivers up the spine. As if this were not enough Neilson offers up some tin pan alley/Brill Building melodrama on the beehived and pizzicato pop song that is Cry Over You. It would be remiss not to mention the title song which is in a similar vein to Walk (Back To Your Arms) but here the guitar really sparks and burns as the drums pound and Neilson sings with a vengeance. Absolutely brilliant.


The Mike + Ruthy Band. Bright As You Can.

Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar are the heart and soul of The Mike + Ruthy Band, appearing as a folk duo for several years they were praised by the late Pete Seeger who appeared at their inaugural summer Hoot Festival. The muscle and sinew is provided on Bright As You Can by an ace team of musicians, drummer Konrad Meissner (Brandi Carlisle, Tracy Bonham), bassist Jacob Silver (Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie) and pedal steel man Charlie Rose (Elephant Revival, Josh Ritter) giving the album a full bodied swell. With adornment from horn players, harmony singers (including Amy Helm and Aoife O’Donovan) and additional guitar and keyboards Bright As You Can is a full blown folk rock album that recalls Fairport Convention circa Rising For The Moon and some of Richard and Linda Thompson’s work.

Mention of Fairport and Thompson doesn’t indicate that the band are reaching for an “English” sound, indeed it’s those moments when Denny, Thompson, Lucas et al were reaching out to America that is recalled here. There’s a solid rhythm section that pulses throughout the album offering a solid bedrock for the songs be they fiddle based, banjo laced or borne aloft on wafts of sax, trumpet and trombone. There are some songs that conform to the basic rootsy Americana template such as the delightful pedal steel/banjo interplay on The Farmer and the homely folk of Simple & Sober while Freckled Ocean builds on a raft of beguiling pedal steel with Ruth Ungar’s voice commanding. The rootsiest song however is the one cover on the album, their version of Michigan’s Steppin’ In It’s The Ghost Of Richard Manuel which is just this side of sublime. There’s a feisty feel to much of the album from the off as a brief tune up introduces the opening title song which tramples down a rocky folk route, fiddles scraping away over an urgent bass and drum beat. Word On the Street launches with some powerful pedal steel licks before Merenda lays down a powerful manifesto as he sings,

“I’m in the clouds babe, you’re on the land, still we kick ass together in this folky band.”

Rock On Little Jane is pumped up by the horn section as Ungar muscles in vocally over a riff that recalls vintage Neil Young while the propulsive bass and organ on What Are We Waiting For channels Tom Petty power pop. The Thompson/Denny parallels are most evident on the fiddle led drone of Legends Only Appear In Black and White with the band swamp laden, wading through a rock’n’roll fuzz as Ungar and Merenda summon up ghosts of folk rock in their vocals but their best is heard on the perfect marriage of banjo, rock rhythm and horns that is Golden Eye with Ungar sensual and the song itself quite addictive.


Anna Laube. Anna Laube. Ahh…Pockets! Records

This self-titled album is actually Madison, Wisconsin based Laube’s third release. Sitting at the folkier end of Americana with a slight blues bent here and there Laube sings with an engaging innocence, her voice light at times although there’s an emotional heft to it. There’s an early seventies feel to the album recalling the likes of Melanie and Maria Muldaur with Laube updating the traditional Cocaine Blues on Sugarcane, channelling Woody Guthrie on The Bike Song and offering a very fine and reverential cover of Satisfied Mind.

Chuck Leavell (of Allman Brothers fame) adds keyboards to the finger poppin’ Oh My! (Oh Me Oh Me Oh My) and there’s some beat up beatnik blues guitar scraping on You Ain’t Worth My Time Anymore but Laube shines best on the opening and closing songs here. Already There and Green shimmer with a sunny disposition, perfect for listening to in a verdant setting.


Martha L. Healy. Better Days.

More home grown Americana in the form of Martha L. Healy, a Glaswegian who grew up in a musical atmosphere with Celtic music sharing space with classic American folk and country. As she puts it, “Everyone was listening to Nirvana, rap or dance music, and then there was me, buried in my bedroom, listening to Bonnie Raitt, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow and Patsy Cline.” In 2014 she went to Nashville, utilising contacts made on a previous trip and recorded Better Days with a cast of local sidemen (all with the sort of pedigree one would expect from Nashville) before coming back and polishing it off in Glasgow with some overdubs from local musicians. The result is an album that belies her evident youth with several of the songs (in the main penned by Healy and Phil Ferns) sounding assured as she delves into classic country sounds along with some received wisdom from her ancestral Irish background. She’s got a grand voice which owes more to her professed American heroines with little to suggest that she’s Scottish but when you can sound like a honky tonk angel on the ballsy swing of Too Much Vodka why go down The Proclaimers route. The Celtic connections are to be heard in the lilting balladry of Enough and Shame, Shame, Shame but are foremost on the autobiographical Burtonport, a song that celebrates her Irish heritage with some aplomb, fiddle and accordion wheezing away over martial drumming.

The album opens with the title song which could easily have come from a Dixie Chicks album, a defiant celebration of living for the now it’s uplifted by some feisty accordion and harmonica. The Lovin’ Kind has a mild mariachi touch and to our ears is reminiscent of vintage Linda Ronstadt. Shame, Shame, Shame is a wonderful hurt love song with the band in very fine form with spare pedal steel (from Tommy Hannum) and mournful harmonica (Rory Hoffman) supporting Healy’s pained vocal. State Of Blue is an excellent slice of pure Americana, a pot pouri of harmonies and country rock stylings, trumpet and curling guitars all driving Healy’s gutsy vocals while the murky swamp blues of Nobody’s Dead allows her free range on the vocal front. Healy breezes through the mandolin dappled 13 Hours and closes the album with a spare rendition of Healin’ Wind. Armed only with her guitar it’s a powerful redemption song allowing her voice to ring clear.


Hillfolk Noir. Performing Arts Centre, Kilbarchan. Saturday 11th July 2015


Blabber’n’Smoke has been a fan of Hillfolk Noir since first hearing them back in 2010. Tonight was our the first opportunity to see the band and by luck it was in the cosy confines of the Performing Arts Centre in Kilbarchan allowing a close up view. We’d read some great reports of the live show and tonight they did not disappoint offering a ninety minute show of their finest “junkerdash.” For the non-aficionado, junkerdash is the word coined by Travis Ward to describe Hillfolk Noir’s music. He defines it as a sound brewed from folk, bluegrass, punk, string-band blues and other influences musical and otherwise. While they fit into the old time string band set up to some extent they are somewhat off kilter with Ward’s lyrics at times almost hallucinatory as the band range from jug band to folk blues and jazz styles and there’s a temptation to compare them to the early versions of The Holy Modal Rounders or Michael Hurley, two acts who play “old time” music but stamp their personality on it. The result however is unique with their music instantly identifiable despite their records featuring the band as a trio, quartet, quintet and septet.

Tonight it’s the core trio (as featured on the last two releases), Travis Ward on guitar and banjo, his wife Alison on banjo and assorted percussion (more of that later) and Michael Waite on double bass. Waite is the engine of the band, his bass playing powerful, pliable and propulsive, by the end of the night his shirt was soaked and he was one string down. Travis Ward’s guitar playing is excellent, his resonator ringing loud and vibrant with fine finger picking and bluesy slide runs. Alison Ward, who introduced most of the songs, had a panoply of percussive tools, two washboards, one played traditionally, the other laid on her lap and played with a drum brush and drumstick, a small cymbal and a rolling pin as a woodblock. In addition, she employed kazoo and proved masterful on musical saw on several numbers.

The show was a blast from start to finish as the played from their catalogue and added several traditional numbers. Several of the numbers they played were medleys of sorts as the band settled on a groove which suited several different songs, Shimmy bled into Viper, both prohibition era jazz like in their swing and sway while Chitlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County segued into St. James Infirmary Blues with Travis giving Pokey LaFarge a run for his money here. There was a rousing rendition of North Idaho Zombie Rag with Alison’s saw playing appropriately spooky and Little Red Caboose skiffled along excellently. The Great Grizzly Bear Scare highlighted Travis’ way with words and again there was skiffle element to it although the hurried words and his harmonica playing recalled an energetic young Dylan as the band struck up a driving railroad rhythm and dovetailed another song, Don’t Mean Nothing (which lyrically nods to Dylan) in the middle leading to a lengthy and rousing upbeat number which raised a great cheer at the end. There was a nod to the “Noir” part of their name with the death and jail ballad Johnny’s Last Run which was taken at a much faster lick than the version on Live At Idaho Penitentiary but they showed that they can slow the pace with Alison’s My Train, a country gospel song that was a sweet as a mountain stream and a new song, written about displaced homeless folk in their hometown delivered simply in a folk style. Little Sadie/Walkin’ Boss harked back to that lonesome bluegrass sound and a rambunctious and rollicking encore of Blues In A Bottle was an excellent end to a thrilling evening that was like being swept through several volumes of the Harry Smith anthology. Simply superb.

Hillfolk Noir are currently touring the UK, dates here and there’s a fine interview with them available here

Courtesy of  Songs From The Shed