The Sweet Water Warblers. With You. EP.


With a band name that could have featured in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Sweet Water Warblers are actually a concoction of three excellent Michigan singers; Lindsay Lou may be familiar to many here as the singer with Lindsay Lou and The Flatbellys (who wowed their crowds at Celtic Connections earlier this year). Completing the trio, Rachael Davis and May Erlewine may not be as well known over here but a swift Google search reveals critical and popular acclaim for both in the American folk and bluegrass communities. Here all three stand as equals and it may well be said that the sum is greater than the parts as this brief disc is astounding.

With Erlewine writing two songs and Lindsay Lou and Davis one each (the writer taking the lead vocals on each) and one traditional number (with Davis on lead vocals) the EP is a truly collaborative effort. Lindsay Lou plays bass, Erlewine guitar, keyboards and fiddle and Davis guitar and banjo and the music is an engaging mixture of folk, soul and blues but the standout element is the entwined harmony singing from all three on all of the songs here. Despite the variety on the EP (which reflects each writer’s individuality) the harmonies knit the disc together recalling the likes of Sweet Honey In The Rock and The Roches at times.

Lindsay Lou’s Sing Me A Song opens the EP. An acapella showcase for their voices it digs deep into the Gospel, spiritual and hymnal roots of American music with a slight sugaring of doo-wop at times. Erlewine’s Too Soon is a delicate salute to late night fun as the sun comes up while the band still plays. Her voice is a delight here, slightly reminiscent of Maria Muldaur, as are the harmonies. Her other contribution, With You, is a magnificent ballad dripping with graceful piano and guitar and it brims with a romantic yearning.

Davis’ contribution, Lazarus, is a rootsier affair with an Appalachian air as she sings of a mother swept away by a biblical flood and hoping her bones will return home. With aching fiddle from Erlewine it’s spine chilling.  The one traditional number here is actually a mash up (if one can use that term when writing of roots music) of Amazing Grace set to the Animals’ arrangement of House Of The Rising Sun and for the most part it works. Davis wails with a bluesy abandon and riffs away on electric guitar but again it’s the harmonies working their magic that lifts the song.


Todd Day Wait on Serendipity and the Art of Busking


At the tail end of last year I heard this album from a guy from New Orleans called Todd Day Wait. It was an unassuming listen, no flash or fandango, just some very fine folk, country and blues which, incidentally, was the name of the album. There wasn’t that much info on Todd on the old interweb thing but lots of video of him and his band, Todd Day Wait’s Pigpen, busking around America. I described the album in a review  as ” a bit of a gem in the vein of a down home Leon Redbone or a pared back Pokey LaFarge with its roots in the pantheon of American roots legends” and it’s been on regular rotation over the months. The album, Folk-Country-Blues,  was released on a German label, Blind Lemon Records, which indicated some European interest and sure enough Todd announced a couple of months back that he was swinging through the continent over March and April. Strangely enough I heard about that via Ags Connolly, a good friend of Blabber’n’Smoke and who turns out to be a buddy of Todd so when I eventually was able to talk to Todd on a day off in Vienna the first thing I asked him was how he knew Ags.

I met Ags when he and Jack Grelle did a tour in the States a year or so back. They came to New Orleans and stayed at my house, Ags is really good, he’s got a great voice and great songs, he nails it. And then when I was in the UK last year I played a couple of shows with him.

I was really taken by your album Folk-Country-Blues and thought that it was your debut but looking at your website I see that you have an earlier mini album, Travelin’ Blues available.



Yeah, that’s six songs I did in Georgia with upright bass and fiddle, no overdubs, just a couple of mics, the bare bones but I like to just capture the performance. Before that I had some demos I used to sell at shows but I’ve stopped printing them now I’ve these two discs.

So you recorded your first official disc in Georgia but then went to Germany to record Folk- Country-Blues?


Yeah, the owner of Blind Lemon Records saw me playing in North Carolina a few years back and after the show he came over and asked if I’d like to go to Germany to record an album so I said, “Sure, if you pay for it” and he said, “Of course!” And then at the start of this tour before we got on the road we went back into the German studios and recorded four songs which we’re planning to put out as a 45. And then when I get back to the States I’m going to record some more songs and again release them on vinyl so by the end of the year I’m hoping to have two 45s out.

You capture a fine old time feel and you mention folk like Jimmy Rodgers,  Charlie Poole and Lefty Frizzell as inspirations.

I really like stuff going back to the 1920’s when you had people like Jimmy Rodgers and Riley Puckett. You know white guys playing blues stuff and black guys playing white stuff and then there’s folk like Bob Wills and his Texas swing and then you go into the 1930’s and there’s Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and I think that they all kind of started out from the same place and a lot of it goes back to Jimmy Rodgers.

So when did you start listening to music like that

I’m not really sure. My grandma played piano in the church and her aunt was a travelling vaudeville musician. So my grandma learned stuff from her and would not only play church tunes but would also play songs from the old days so I heard a lot of songs through her. The first show I went to was a Willie Nelson show in the nineties back when he was doing a lot of shows in farming communities as a part of Farm Aid. He played a show next to my grandma’s property and I really liked him and if you like Willie Nelson then you can backtrack with him into Texas music until you hit those singers like Tubbs and Frizzell and again back to Jimmy Rodgers. And through liking Willie I heard Merle haggard and that took me into the guys from the sixties. And listening to them I wondered what they liked, what they were listening to and so I looked into their influences. So really how I got into this music was really just backtracking.

When did you start playing?

I started playing guitar in my early teens but I remember writing little songs when I was just a kid. I remember singing little songs and writing them down and showing them to my sister and her then making fun of me. I’ve always thought that music and songs are a cool language, you know, writing your thoughts down and singing them and adding a melody. I’ve always loved doing that since I was young.

I read that you were living in Missouri but in 2009 you just decided to up sticks and go on the road so you just put all your possession on the kerbside and left.

Yeah. I’d been playing music for a couple of years by then. I’d quite often just travel. You know, jump in a car with my guitar and just go some place and I’d been doing that for several years but in 2009 I kind of just realised that I had to jump in all the way. There was no point in doing it just halfway so I just said that’s it. I took everything out of my house, put it on the kerb and within like five hours people came and took it away and I was ready to leave.

So did you have like a yard sale to get enough money to get up and go?

No, I just gave it away; it was just old furniture and stuff. I didn’t think about selling it but now you mention it maybe I should have. I’d saved up about $1200 but just a week before I was set on leaving I saw a Fender Rhodes piano on sale. It was $600 so I spent half my money buying that and I went from Missouri to California with the 600 I had left. I had an old white Chevy van and I loaded the piano, an amp and some other stuff and went off. I had a buddy who came along for a little bit. We went to California, spent some time out there and then I headed down to New Orleans.

So why New Orleans?

Well I went there in 2006 and then another couple of times before 2009 and I realised that you could make some money just playing in the streets in New Orleans, you don’t get harassed or arrested. And there’s just so much music there. Coming from Missouri, OK, there’s music there but nothing like what was going on in New Orleans. There’s music in the streets, all the nightclubs, and I realised I could live there pretty cheap. First year I was there I lived in my buddy’s kitchen. He had an apartment which was one room and a kitchen and a bathroom and he let me sleep underneath his kitchen table.

I’ve seen several videos of you busking. Do you have a regular group of people you play with or is it just whoever turns up?



I knew what I wanted to do but it’s kind of hard to convince other  people to do it for basically no money so what happens is when I’m in New Orleans I use people who live there, when I’m in California I use people who live in California. I’ve just developed this thing where I can claw people in when it works for them. It’s a lot easier for someone in New Orleans to just play locally rather than ask them to travel all over the mid west for next to no money.

What about this tour you’re currently on? You’re going through Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland. Have you brought a band with you on that?

Yes. This is my fifth time over here and I’ve brought a fiddle player (Lyle Werner) and a steel guitar player (Nikolai Shveitser). We’re using local upright bass players for some of the shows and then for the last two weeks we’ve got a bass player from Italy. So some shows as a three piece but most as a four piece.

The pictures I’ve seen on Facebook look as though the shows are going well.

Well I just love playing Hillbilly music and we throw in some country, jazz and swing.  I mean basically it’s all the same stuff and we’re playing songs from the twenties through to the fifties, songs with lots of lyrical content and then ones you just want to dance to. So I think that if you’re young or old, no matter what your background, you can come along and enjoy the show.

On the album you have two cover songs, one by Jimmy Rodgers, and one by Gus Cannon. How did you go about picking those?


Well I just love playing Jimmy Rodgers’ songs so there had to be one of those and the Gus Cannon song, well, Thomas had heard us play it and he wanted it on the record and if the boss man says he wants something I guess we gotta do it. It’s always good to have the boss man on your side.

And as you said earlier it was Thomas Schlieken who heard you play in a bar in the states and invited you over to record the album.

Yes, you never know how this crazy world works you know. Some of the biggest opportunities I’ve had have been in the most unlikely circumstances. I met the producer of my first disc at a farmer’s market in San Diego. His name is Mark Neill (producer of The Black Keys and Los straitjackets amongst others) and he’s helped me out ever since. It was just the sort of place where you’d never expect to meet someone like that. We were playing on a Thursday afternoon at this crappy farmers market. I’d found out that you could make some money just playing these farmers markets across the country, some are good and some not so good but this one was really terrible, we were standing in the glare of the sun in the dirt and sand and Mark saw us, you never know how this world works.

Serendipitous indeed. You must make a good impression if these guys just happen across you and say, “Hi, let’s make a record”.

Well I’m a big baseball fan and I just grew up knowing you can’t hit the ball if you just sit and wait. You got to get up to the plate and take your swing and you never know how it will work but you just need to give it your best swing and then you never know. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I was playing on my own and then as a duo, a trio and now there’s four or five in my band and the more people who see you  play and then maybe book you allows you to get more money to hire more people for the band and play more places. And people seem to like country music, the reason I’m in Vienna right now is that last time I was over here someone saw me and said, “I want you to come to Vienna next time”.

Any plans to come back to the UK anytime soon.

I’d love to. I plan to come to Europe at least once a year and I know that folk like Jack Grelle have a great time when they’re playing in Britain so I’d hope to come back hopefully next year. I’m hoping that these singles we’re bringing out get a few spins and spread the word. They’ll have a digital download code but I’m hoping people will like the singles themselves. That’s the way I listen to music, I don’t have a CD player so I listen to records and I think that more and more people are doing that. It’s a great experience, having your friends over and they go through your collection, to me that’s an ideal Friday night, let’s listen to records. It’s so much more tangible, singles, ten inchers and albums, I think people just like them.

So you’ve got a couple more dates in Europe and then it’s back to the States.

When we get back we’re going up to Cincinnati to play a Merle Haggard tribute and then it’s back to the west coast for a six-week tour so it’s a busy time of the year coming up.

We left Todd there but followed his tour adventures including two sold out nights in Paris. Hopefully he’ll make it to our shores in the not too distant future and there’s always the prospect of a couple of cool 45’s to look forward to.








Pete Coutts. Northern Sky. Fitlike Records


Pete Coutts is a well kent musician in the folk world of North East of Scotland and he first came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention as one third of Ballad of Crows whose 2015 album we reviewed here. While that album had some roots in American music for his solo debut Coutts sticks firmly to his homeland and traditions, singing in the local tongue, Doric. A northeastern version of the Scots language Doric has an extensive history in literature and song stretching back to the 15th Century (many of the Child Ballads can be traced back to here) and its earthy kailyard utterances fit perfectly into Coutts collection of fine folk songs and tunes.

Singing and playing guitar and mandolin Coutts is assisted by a fine cast of top players from the Scots folk world who add whistles and pipes, fiddle and accordion, bodhran and cittern. The result is a nimble and excellently played series of instrumentals and songs that burst with energy as the players engage with each other as only the best folk musicians can creating a concatenation of strings and things. As with the finest Celtic music Coutts conjures emotions and memories of the land, sea and air along with the folk who dwell within. The instrumentals have a wonderful sense of restrained gaiety as the musicians parry with each other summoning up images garnered from the televised Transatlantic Sessions.  Allathumpach opens the album and immediately the listener is transported into a bothy session, a sense heightened by In & Oot. Boink!, despite its title, is somewhat more mannered initially with Coutts’ mandolin and the guitars gently bolstered by the fiddle and whistles before a grand entrance from the pipe ushers in a sense of grandness. The last tune on the album, Strichen Gala/The Road To Aikey Brae, closes the circle as once again one feels as if you are surrounded by a fleet of fine players and the ale is flowing fast.

These instrumentals are scattered throughout the album with Coutts’ songs standing proud amongst them. With occasional seabird sounds interspersed adding to the atmosphere Coutts’ strong voice delivers a powerful set of songs that take in the pride of fishermen returning home with a full catch (Sail & Oar) and the backbreaking work of cutting peat (Castin’ The Peat). Will Ye Byde is a glimmering gem of a song that sounds as ancient as the Caledonian Forest with Coutts accompanied only by a sonorous accordion on a love song which invokes the likes of Rabbie Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon with Coutts standing tall beside such keepers of the folk tradition as Martin Carthy. This is reinforced on Belhelvie, a gutsy rendition of a fatal accident involving a traction engine falling into a dyke which is both stirring and emotive. all the more so as it’s apparently based on a true family tale.

The title song is a bit of an anomaly here and presumably something of a tribute to its writer but Coutts handles Nick Drake’s Northern Sky with some aplomb. He sings it wonderfully and the slight Celtic air afforded it remains true to the melancholic feel of the original. It’s probably the best cover of a Drake song we’ve come across. Whatever, it sits well within the album which overall is a blissful winter listen. If you’re looking for some Celtic music to air around this New Year then is thoroughly recommended.




Doghouse Roses. Lost Is Not Losing. Yellowroom Music.


Back in March Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to Paul Tasker about his solo album Cold Weather Music. We also spent some time discussing the exciting news that Doghouse Roses had a new album recorded, their first in six years with Paul promising a November release. True to his word, Lost Is Not Losing hits the streets this week and, several listens in we can confirm that it’s been well worth the wait.

Comprised of Tasker on guitar and the glorious voice of Iona MacDonald, Doghouse Roses are one of those bands who are critics’ favourites with a devoted following both here and abroad especially in Europe. Critical acclaim however doesn’t always butter the bread and following their excellent 2010 album This Broken Key they had a hiatus of sorts.  An invitation from cult US art rockers Television to open for them on a European tour in 2014 was a kind of kick starter and it paved the way to this album. They’ve been back on the road and released two EPs in the past two years and finally with Lost is Not Losing they emerge triumphant.

Since their tentative string laden debut and the woody Americana of This Broken Key Tasker and MacDonald have matured as songwriters and while they still tread in the footsteps of artists such as the Pentangle family, Gillian Welch, Fairport Convention and John & Beverly Martyn the pair confidently march forward. The album is a fine mix of assured and melodic folk rock along with strong ballads and even some mild rockabilly. Gathering around them a sympathetic crew of musicians and vocalists the album is fully realised, the songs throughout balanced perfectly.

They open with the liquid gravitas of Pour, a lambent lament on the effects of alcohol on a relationship with Tasker’s electric guitar slowly burning as MacDonald commands the voice of a wounded soul, battered but proud, the song akin to an early Fairport number when Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny were ascending to their heights. With drums and bass from Craig Lawrie and Stephen McGourty gently propelling the song along with harmonies from Jo Shaw and Biff Smith the song is a fine declaration from Doghouse Roses that they’re back. To Decide displays the pair unadorned, Tasker’s guitar wizardry and MacDonald’s voice welded to each other on a wistful ripple of a song which seems to have had its genesis in late night post gig decisions. The pair delight again on the old time New Year Rag, a song that has a political context delivered with the breezy sassiness of the likes of Malvina Reynolds while the starkly beautiful After Sun addresses an environmental collapse and Feed The Monster tips against global avarice and the indifference which allows it to grow unfettered.


Elsewhere the basic duo sound is gently expanded to include mandolin ripples (from Laura Beth Salter) on The Whistle Song offering a fine folk lilt and an opportunity for Tasker and Salter to indulge in some duelling string playing. Jez Hellard adds some excellent and earthy harmonica to the tale of a prostitute on Fairground and there’s a full band set up for the breezy folk rock of Crooked Life which in a blindfold test could easily be assumed to be an outtake from Fleetwood Mac’s witchy Stevie Nicks. There’s some electric guitar muscle on the driving rock of Weather The Storm (courtesy of John Alexander), the song itself wonderfully arranged in its dynamics and vocal performances in the middle eight especially. Perfect radio fodder as is the chunky retro groove of Diesel Engine with the Roses’ letting their hair down somewhat as various guitars slip and slide and snarl, the lead on this occasion handled by Slovenian guitarist Dejan Lapanja.

The album draws to a close with a song that sounds as if it’s been summoned from the halcyon days of sixties folk. Days Of Grass And Sun displays the duo’s strengths with MacDonald’s voice crystal clear and assured as Tasker lays down his intricate finger picking and flourishes. The song itself has the perfect mixture of simplicity and memorable melody that characterised the likes of Tom Paxton, Fred Neil and even Joni Mitchell in her Clouds era. It’s a wonderful ending to what is a wonderful album throughout.

Lost Is Not Losing is released this Friday with a launch event at The State Bar in Glasgow. They appear again the next night at The Admiral Bar as part of a Light Of Day charity gig  before the band head off to Germany for a short tour. Dates here



Heidi Talbot. Here We Go, 1,2,3… Navigator Records


In the space between her last album, 2013’s Angels Without Wings and this, her fifth release Ms. Talbot has undergone several changes, the birth of her second child, the passing away of her mother. More mundanely, she and husband John McCusker have built their home studio in the Scottish borders. Here We Go, 1,2,3… reflects some of these changes. There’s a contemplative aspect to several of the songs, a looking back and forward aspect. In addition she describes the new recording set up as being, “in your own environment, you’re comfortable, you’ve got all the time you need and the kids can come over.” Fittingly then she has written or co written eight of the ten songs here, a departure from previous albums where she relied mainly on traditional covers or songs from her extended musical family.

While Talbot’s (and McCusker’s) folk roots still underpin the songs with Uillean pipes and tin whistles prominent on Time To Rest and The Willow Tree, the album continues the slight shift into the mainstream that was evident on Angels Without Wings. Talbot here is closer to Eddie Reader than to Julie Fowlis and the beauty of songs such as A Song For Rose (will you remember me) and Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me recall the days when Linda Thompson was still singing the songs penned by her then husband Richard. Talbot’s voice is, as ever, a thing of joy. Light and clear with a youthful vulnerability to it she soothes as she sings, indeed there’s a childlike anticipation on the uplifting lilt of the opening title song despite it being about meeting in the afterworld. Likewise, A Song For Rose (will you remember me), written while her mother was ill, reaches into the past with a childlike refrain with Talbot’s daughter joining in briefly on the last chorus. While such a venture could easily become maudlin here it’s managed with grace and tenderness, the song  beautifully realised with warm strings. Throughout the album Talbot draws pictures that are evocative and warm. The Year That I Was Born sparkles with a nostalgia that anyone digging through old photographs will recognise while Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me starts off like an old grandfather clock brooding over Talbot’s tentative love song, the ensemble playing here just excellent, percussion, strings and horns all wrapped cosily together.

The musicians (including the hubby, Louis Abbott, Michael McGoldrick and Donald Shaw) conjure wonderful sounds throughout. Gossamer like on occasion, elsewhere gently swelling, all captured in a great clarity. It’s a comforting album, one to be savoured at length and perhaps late at night cosseted by a fine beverage.






Phil Ochs. Live Again. Floating World Records


A contemporary of Dylan, a protest singer who carried on protesting when Dylan decided to give up on “finger pointing songs,” Phil Ochs never achieved the fame accorded to his rival. Consider that just one year before Bob and The Band set out across The States for their Before The Flood tour, opening to 18,000 folk, Ochs was playing this show in an old stable in Michigan, three years later, he took his own life. His early demise and his reluctance to drop his political stance and move further into pop/rock have left Ochs firmly in limbo when it comes to general recognition, indeed he doesn’t even seem to have achieved “cult status”. Instead, aside from some devoted fans including Sean Penn, he is noted as a respected artist in the folk and protest movement with his later and more expansive work rarely mentioned. As a result there haven’t been any grand retrospectives or box sets of his work but recently there’s been a trickle of live recordings uncovered and Live Again is one that’s highly recommended.

Recorded in 1973 with Ochs sounding in fine spirit he performs alone with his guitar, the songs spanning his 10 year career. It’s a recording very much of its time with Richard Nixon firmly in his sights (the disgraced Tricky Dicky resigned one year later) but his preamble to Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon is alarmingly relevant to these days of clownish presidential hopefuls. Elsewhere he rails against CIA involvement in South America (of which he had personal experience, arrested in Argentina after a visit to Allende’s Chile) on Santa Domingo and hones in on the American art of assassination on the immensely powerful Crucifixion. There But For Fortune, Changes, Outside A Small Circle Of Friends and I Ain’t Marching Anymore retain their appeal revealing why Ochs was once considered an equal of Dylan back in the Greenwich Village days. In addition  several of the songs offer evidence that Ochs should stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow sixties troubadours such as Buckley, Neil and Hardin with The Bells, Flower Lady, Changes and Pleasures Of The Harbour all wonderfully delivered.

With the shit storm that is the Middle East and the potential ramifications of the current presidential election Ochs sounds as relevant today as he did back then. Live Again is a must for fans of his music and works well as an introduction for newbies.

Here he is in 1969.

Jon Boden. Painted Lady. Navigator Records


Blabber’n’Smoke were never too taken by Bellowhead. Too busy, too rabble rousing, perhaps (gulp) too popular. Only kidding there but as evidenced on their final live disc (reviewed here ) they and their audience did like a good old knees up resulting in the band becoming festival favourites, to my mind the music suffering as a result. While it’s not entirely accurate to call Bellowhead Jon Boden’s band as there was a wealth of talent in there it was when Boden announced he was leaving that the band decided to call it a day. Now, their never ending farewell tours actually having ended we await Boden’s next move. In the interim his first solo album, Painted Lady, from 2006, is being reissued with some extra songs tacked on. It’s a welcome return for the album and a fine reminder of the man’s talents.

A truly solo album Painted Lady has Boden playing all instruments including electric guitar, fiddle, banjo, double bass, concertina, Indian harmonium, glockenspiel, piano, drum machine and Moog synthesiser. As you might surmise from that assortment it’s not a traditional folk album. It’s fair to say I think that Boden’s influences here include Tom Waits and Richard Thompson and while he never achieves parity with either he has a brave stab at it. It’s an uneven album and Boden’s voice at times struggles with the rockier songs but when it’s good it is very good. Get A Little Something opens the album in fine style, a Waits like banjo jamboree that woozily waltzes with fairground gaiety and slashes of guitar. The romantic side of Waits looms large on Josephine while his more experimental edge hovers over Pocketful of Mud, a muddy (indeed) mash up of sampled voices, waspish guitar and an electronic beat that forever seems about to burst into Tainted Love with a side dish of dub.

While Pocketful of Mud passes muster as a sonic adventure Drunken Princess comes across as a failed attempt to marry a sensitive ballad with electronics and a mismatched howl of a chorus. The closing song Drinking The Night Away is too stiff for a song that surely calls for a loose-limbed approach, here the one-man band approach does the song no favours while Boden’s voice is too mannered and strained. However he’s on surer ground on several songs that discard much of the exotic instrumentation, the shimmering Blue Dress, the robust Lemany (quite a wonderful love song actually) and the gentle strains of True Love all qualify for repeat listening. On his more familiar folkier ground Win Some Lose Some Sally approaches Fairport Convention territory with its skirled guitar and almost martial beat and the harmonium infused Ophelia and Broken Things are downbeat and evocative although the latter does recall Lionel Bart’s showbiz take on common folks’ music. But then again Boden has a background in music theatre and on the title song here he comes up with a song that could surely grace the West End, his voice, the minimal accompaniment and the images in the lyrics all conspiring towards a career in the limelight.

As for the bonus songs, All Hang Down is a lusty folk rock number while Old Brown’s Daughter finds Boden alone with his guitar and happily burrowing into a quintessential folk idiom as he sings about his unrequited love for the local shopkeeper’s daughter, a song that could easily sit on the soundtrack for the rebooted Poldark. Finally, there’s the bizarre mash up of Morris music and Whitney Houston as Boden tackles I Want to Dance With Somebody. Too weird to describe, you just need to hear it and make up your own mind.


The Hackensaw Boys are back in town


Since their formation in Charlottesville, Carolina around 19 years ago The Hackensaw Boys have gained a couple of reputations. One concerns the sheer number of musicians who have passed through their ranks over the years. Another more pertinent one is of being one of the most joyful and rambunctious live bands around, raucous and great fun, “head banging string band music” one reviewer said of their shows. This month sees the release of their latest album, Charismo (on Freedirt Records) which is named after their preferred percussion gizmo, a contraption composed of tin cans, hubcaps, car licence plates  and other “junk”. A Heath Robinson like contrivance that’s like a steam punk washboard the Charismo has been an integral part of their set up since the first one was hammered together by one time band member Justin “Salvage” Neuhardt. Coinciding with the album release the band are setting out on a lengthy European jaunt which started in The Netherlands and includes four UK shows this week including a slot at Maverick Festival.


Charismo is their first full-length release in almost ten years and features the current line up of David Sickmen on guitar, Ferd Moyse, fiddle, Jimmy Stelling, banjo and Brian Gorby on Charismo and drums. Produced by Larry Campbell who has worked with Dylan and Levon Helm it has 11 songs (all written by Sickmen and Moyse) which can ripple and ring with an old time Appalachian swing, swerve into folk territory or just generally rip it up. Songs like Ol’ Nick and Limousin Lady are simply exhilarating while The Sweet is a folky number that could have been penned by Ewan MacColl. There are whoops and hollers aplenty but some reviewers have commented that the album is just that bit more mellow than they had come to expect from The Hackensaw Boys. Certainly C’Mon Baby Don’t Bet Against Me and Flora roll sweetly along, the former reminding me of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band in their heyday but even in mellow mood the Boys still have a fine rustic rawness.


Blabber’n’Smoke had the opportunity to speak with original band member David Sickmen while he was in Pittsburgh in between shows. David was happy to talk about the meandering history of the band along with some discussion about the current parlous state of politics (which I’ve left out here, suffice to say we both dislike blonde buffoons peddling lies and fear) but first of all I asked him about the album and those comments on the band mellowing somewhat.

Well we had this batch of songs we took into the studio and that’s different from playing live. In the studio there’s the temptation to shine every diamond but really we just tried to make every song sound great and with Larry Campbell producing it was just a very natural and easy process. As for the songs however I’d be lying if I were to say that I’m not getting older and maybe a bit more mellow so a lot of what I think about writing about is on the softer side of things, more ballady if you like. But the live shows are definitely energetic and we want folk to come out and party and leave all the bad shit, the Donald Trump’s and that behind and come out for a couple of hours and dance and party and drink beer.

Larry Campbell’s probably best known for being Dylan’s guitarist for several years on The Never Ending Tour and for producing Levon Helm’s last albums.  How did you hook up with him?

Through mutual friends. We reached out to a friend who got some demos we had recorded in Amsterdam to Larry. He thought they were great and he agreed to produce the album.

This is your first full-length album in around ten years, why so long?

Well we’ve had EPs and such but yes, this is the first album in about ten years. Why? Well, life,  poor management, people leaving the band and then we were spending so much time on the live circuits that we just didn’t have the time. But I think it’s been worth the wait because we’re more mature now.

The band’s always been something of a shape shifter, people coming and going and then some coming back again. You were one of the original members then you left and then came back again. There’s four Hackensaw Boys right now, is that right?

Yes but we’ll have a fifth member when we get over to Europe, we’re currently looking for an accordion player. I helped start the band in 1999 and then in 2005, well, I guess the pleasant way to say it is I couldn’t think straight anymore so I had to step out for about five years and then some of the other guys had to leave and I came back in, by then I was a lot healthier.

I read that at one point you had about 12 people on stage.

Well we started off as just four guys but within a week or so a friend of ours jumped in on harmonica and then we started doing thses shows in Charlottesville, in a place called the Blue Moon Diner, another guy would come up and say, “I play banjo can I come on up” and we’d say sure and it just kept on growing. We embraced anyone who wanted to play, we just said come on.  So yeah, at one point we had 12 guys playing. We did our first tour in a 1964 GMC motor coach, an ex Greyhound bus.  12 of us on the road and we did that for about a year, then people would fall away over time. Some would act up too much, we did fire some people, one of the guys passed away, so yeah, we have a kind of wild history with the line up but I don’t shy away from that, it’s part of the beauty of it all. The thing that’s kind of risen to the top is that the spirit of what we try to do musically has always been there no matter who’s playing in the band.

That’s the spirit of the band but how would you describe the sound of the band?

It’s not truly old time music. If it’s old time at all it’s in the spirit of encouraging people to dance, to come out to the barn if you will and have some fun. It’s maybe our interpretation of what guys in the 1920s might have been like, you know, travelling around, going to different places in like a three county area doing barn dances. Obviously it’s folk music but a lot of us grew up on rock’n’roll and punk and that is filtered into it but really, even after all these years I still don’t know what to call it to be honest. Maybe just say it’s hard rock and folk music that rolls. Some songs rock hard, some are quieter and some just roll along. I mean what do you call it?

Well we talk about old time music, string bands, bluegrass and folk but with a lot of bands it’s all mixed into one. I’m trying to avoid the word Americana here.

Yeah, we get the bluegrass moniker and that’s mainly based on the instrumentation but honestly I don’t think we’re a bluegrass band, traditional bluegrass might share the same instruments but it sounds different from us. We don’t sound like the Stanley Brothers where there’s no percussion, there’s certainly no “badam badam badam!”, the drive is different. When we started out we were listening to traditional music. Our original banjo and fiddle player was into old time music, he was taught by a guy in Harrisonburg called Two Gun Terry.  Tom (Peloso) was coming from a background where he listened to Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, his grandfather was an old Irish guy who listened to that stuff, he can probably to this day sing you every one of the Clancy Brothers songs. Me, I grew up around my uncle and he had a lot of records of gospel bluegrass so I heard a lot of that. In addition, my mother was from the coalfields of West Virginia and when we went there to visit family I would hear the Baptists singing in the church. Of the original four of us Robert Bullington, well, his great-great uncle played in a jug band that actually recorded back in the twenties, they were called the Roanoke Jug Band out of Roanoke Virginia and Rob still had his uncle’s original mandolin. So we all had this background but then we were all also into punk and rock’n’roll so that’s really the origins of the band. Another original member was Robert St. Ours who was good friends with Ketch Secor and Critter from the Old Crow Medicine Show, they were in a band together in Harrisonburg called the Route 11 Boys before he joined up with us. We had a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and fiddle and an upright bass and we learned some old songs like John Hardy and that but we were also all songwriters and we wrote in that direction. It wasn’t fake or contrived, we were trying to honour our perception of Uncle Dave Macon, Doc Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb or Tommy Jarrell and of course the Blues guys, Howlin’ Wolf and such. We were into all of that and we all loved Bob Dylan and we all knew about folk music.

There’s a long list of past and present members of the band on your Facebook page, some 25 folk I think. How do you keep the essence of what it is to be a Hackensaw Boy?

Well the psyche and the story of the band are all these different souls coming in and out of it and while we used to shy away from it somewhat, I mean it was like well who’s in this band, well, the world. It’s a world band.

I sometimes think that if we discovered America today and found all these guys playing banjos and fiddles we’d find it exotic and file it under world music.

Deep down we’re all human beings, genetically we’re all the same but through time and history we’ve all developed different characteristics and I kind of see what we’re doing as similar to that, it’s all one style of music but played in so many different ways. We’re a multi dimensional band, musically, spiritually, even politically, I mean I’m more political than some of the other band members but ultimately you can get trapped by words and descriptions. In many ways we’re still trying to figure out who we are. I’ve found that in my writing sometimes.  I’ve written something and I start to think, “is this a Hackensaw Boys song?” and that’s a really stifling, limiting feeling. It’s anti music in a way because it’s all about growth and I feel that this band, 19 years and 25 members later, well, we’re still trying to see who we are. I mean we’ve played everywhere from The Ryman to the shittiest bar in America, we’ve done it all but we’re still searching and I think that’s why we’re still a good band.

The album’s named after the band’s unique percussion instrument, the Charismo which was originally built by Justin Neuhardt who hammered together some tin cans and hubcaps which he then beat with wire-brush sticks.

Yeah, again back in the early days when we were playing in the diner  Justin joined in and he was playing spoons and when we were about to go on that tour I mentioned earlier  he was like, “I don’t want to play spoons for six weeks”.  He’s an artist and sculptor so he showed up a couple of days later and said “check this out”, this contraption and so that was the first one. It’s great, it has the qualities of a washboard but so much more and so we called it the Charismo because it had so much charisma. It really fit in with our sound, pretty soon the audiences in the diner grew until there were folk queuing up outside who couldn’t get in.


I hear that it’s been rebuilt, hammered together, taken apart over the years.

Well I believe that he’s actually built about a hundred of them by now.  A lot of them are actually on Justin’s wall back in LA where he’s a full time sculptor.


By the time this is published you’ll be in the early stages of a lengthy European tour.

We’re doing the lot, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, France and The UK. We’ve been over several times and I really like playing to the European audiences, they seem to get really excited about the music. Sometimes in the States we play and people just stand around but in Europe maybe we seem more… exotic, perhaps that’s the word. There’s a festival over here, Floyd Fest in Virginia, which was originally a world music type festival and I went to the first one, 10 or 12 years ago and there were these African musicians and I just stood there in awe because I’d never seen or heard anything like that, so maybe that’s how some folk in Europe see us.  We go down really well in Germany and Spain; in the UK we’re not as well known. When we play a place like the Cluny in Newcastle it’s packed but in London the crowds are smaller. We’d really like to crack the festival circuit there. We played Clonakilty in Ireland and it was crowded but in Dublin there was only a couple of dozen there. It’s hard, I mean it’s not hard like a Syrian refugee’s life is hard or how life can be hard in the real world but to keep on doing this and be creative is a struggle. Maybe the UK are still mad about the revolutionary war!

It amazes and also dismays me that bands like yourselves, unless it’s part of some big festival or there’s been some kind of hi-res publicity like a TV show, can play to audiences of less than a hundred over here.

That happens to us in the States as well but we’ll play to small crowds and then big crowds, we’re still slugging it out. We play the exact same show no matter how many people are there, if it’s a really small crowd we might just forget the mics and stage set up and just come down and play on the floor. That’s usually a part of our show anyway. We’ll come off the stage and just break it down to its rawest form and people really like that. It all boils down to making a living and we’ll have some merchandise at the shows, Tee shirts, records.  Charismo is out on vinyl and we’ve got a 7″ single we recorded in Amsterdam which is two of the demos from the album. It’s our first foray into vinyl and we’ve actually been selling as many of those as we do CDs.

Finally, can I ask a dumb question?  Where does the band name come from?

It started almost as a joke. When we started playing at the Blue Moon Diner the guy who ran it took us on as our manager for a while and we didn’t have a name and he wanted to know what to call us. And then Bobby and Tom said well we’re kind of like hacking and sawing away here, hacking on the guitar, sawing on the fiddle and I think it was Tom who said Hackensaw and then Boys was just a sort of traditional moniker for a lot of Appalachian bands. So that was that but I sometime wish we had left the Boys bit out.

UK dates.

Tuesday June 28 Boston Music Arms London
Wednesday June 29 The Moon Club Cardiff
Thursday June 30 The Cluny Newcastle
Friday Juyl 1 Maverick Festival Easton

All European dates are here


Free Dirt Records

Pictures of The Charismo courtesy of Justin Neuhardt. Thanks to Free Dirt Records and Ark PR for facillitating the interview and many thanks to David Sickmen for a really enjoyable chat.


John McCusker. Hello, Goodbye. Under One Sky Records


Since he first came to attention as a 17 year old prodigy invited to join The Battlefield Band back in the early nineties John McCusker has become a cornerstone of the UK folk music scene. His fiddle playing has graced many an album while his production and arrangement skills have seen him work with numerous artists and ensembles, one off projects, television and film work. Regularly nominated for (and often winning) all sorts of folk awards he is as often to be found working with rock and pop musicians and regularly tours as part of Mark Knopfler’s band.

Hello, Goodbye is his sixth solo album and it features a fine cast list including James Mackintosh, Ewen Vernal, Ian Carr, Michael McGoldrick, Andy Cutting, Tim O’Brien, Phil Cunningham, Jarleth Henderson and McCusker’s partner Heidi Talbot (heard briefly as the album opens). Coming 13 years after his last solo effort it’s the first to be recorded at his new home studio, a converted bothy next to his Borders home and is a welcome return to the frontline for this folk Renaissance man.

Aside from a (very) brief sung part as the album opens, it’s all instrumental with all of the tunes written by McCusker. Having said that the album is as traditional as the hills, jigs, reels, waltzes and laments all represented, sounding as if McCusker has grasped them from the very air, melodies of the ages, reshaped by each generation. There are modern elements in there, the funky bass line of FooFog for example or the nod to the American duo The Milk Carton Kids on the same titled tune, a fiddle lament with acoustic guitar gracings.  Throughout the album McCusker duets with various musicians on more fiddle, mandolin, guitar or flute as the rhythm section skip merrily along defying the listener to sit still. From the titles of the tunes it’s apparent that he’s written these almost as a musical diary, the titles reflecting life events, his own or of friends. It’s A Girl, The Wedding, A Trip To Roma, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz  and Tune For Nana probably all resonate strongly with McCusker and his family and friends but there’s no sense here of exclusivity. Instead it’s indicative that, despite his impressive CV, McCusker has kept close to his roots, as happy to write a reel to celebrate a friend’s wedding as he is to share a stage with Bob Dylan. A cert to be on the lists of top folk albums by the end of the year.



Topic Records to make out of print material available digitally

Topic Records logo

Weird how things happen at times, synchronicity, chance etc. On Friday, the 21st December I was busy ignoring the end of the world message from the ancient Mayans while browsing in a record bin in a charity shop in the city centre eventually coming up for air with a fine find. A Martin Carthy album, Because It’s There, on Topic Records, score! Later that day (ahem, Mayans) this press release popped up regarding a plan to make the Topic Records catalogue available on line. For folk nuts this is big news. Details below.

From January 2013, the venerable and redoubtable Topic Records (now 74 years old) will be making available another of its ‘gifts to the nation’, in the form of The Great Big Digital Archive Project. Thereafter, a programme of 6 – 10 additional titles will be released every month throughout the year. With the possible exception of Smithsonian Records in the US, this will probably constitute the largest digital project of its kind undertaken by an independent record company anywhere in the world.
Topic has always had the underlying philosophy of making traditional based music as widely available as possible. The ambition of the label is now to make as much of its vast historical catalogue available using the current format – digital. What makes this project distinctive is that at the moment, digital delivery all too often divorces the audio recording from all artwork, documentation and sleeve-notes. The plan at Topic is to restore and include all of the information that accompanied the original releases of the past.
In January 2013, 84 of these albums will be available to download complete with digital booklets. The digital booklets will be available from the Topic website as well as iTunes. There will also be a short YouTube film explaining the project in detail and the content of specific digital booklets.
The first tranche of 84 digital releases will include albums originally released on vinyl LP in the late 1950s, the 60s, 70s and 80s. Many have been out of print for twenty years or more and include titles which were championed by John Peel and other influential broadcasters.
Much of the repertoire on the field recordings included in the Topic archive has fed into the latest British folk revival, whilst many recordings of Irish traditional music are of cultural and political significance and date from a period when there were few domestic labels in Ireland releasing such music.
Example :
The original recording of Davy Graham’s ‘Angi’ was made in Bill Leader’s Camden Town basement flat in 1962 and released on the seminal Topic 7″ vinyl EP – 3/4 AD. The vinyl release appeared in three different sleeves during the early 60s and with slightly different sleeve notes by Alexis Korner. Our digital booklet will incorporate all the sleeve notes and illustrate the variant sleeve designs. ‘Angi’ is widely regarded as one of the cornerstone compositions of the sixties’ acoustic guitar movement, famously recorded by Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, Ralph McTell, etc.

Topic Records