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.
Courtesy of Songs From The Shed