This record will stick with me for a very long time. It’s the kind of music I’d like to play to my kids when the oil has run out. It’s the kind of music you’d want to hear at a wedding. It’s the kind of music that could help you grieve. It’s the kind of music you can sink a bottle of rum to before going out to do stupid things with a spray-can (regrettable, immature things). I have a lot more of those sound bytes primed and ready, involving cooking, sex, fights with the police, shooting rats and doing tax returns, but you’ve likely had enough.
I’d say that this record outstrips Jack Rose’s work in Pelt and all of his solo records (including Kensington Blues, just), which is a rose and a thorn to any artist who has built a worthy solo career. This might rub up against the feelings of some of his long-term fans as this record focuses mostly on Rose’s melody and timing. By the nature of the dense sound of the Black Twigs it rough-rides over the sonic waverings and strange harmonising that one can find while immersed in a Jack Rose solo cut.
I hadn’t heard a great deal from the Black Twig Pickers before, but from what I had heard I wasn’t sure what an amalgam of them and Rose would come out sounding like. This is certainly not Jack Rose with a backing band. It seems that Rose, with his sturdy, studied and very deliberate fingerpicking, has provided a solid backbone around which the banjo, fiddle, harmonica and percussion of Isak Howell, Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles have an opportunity to thrive. There is a sense of collective effort, no hang-ups on who makes the sale, the tips are shared.
On songs of theirs I have heard before there is less of a firm footing. All of their acoustic instruments operate in a middle to high range, perfect for cutting through the hubbub while they lead the revellers every month at the Country Store Dance, in Floyd, Virginia. The banjo is often used to lead percussively when there is no percussionist to do so, but here it shares the duty with Rose’s steel string (and occasional brush drumming as on the sing-along jollies of ‘Hand me down my Walking Cane’). It is often tuned to low range open tunings which roots the songs and gives them a real solidity, allowing the listener to sway with abandon. It also mops up all the harshness that can unfortunately accompany the harmonica, fiddle and banjo.
The hurricane opener ‘Little Sadie’ will doubtless be two of the best minutes on any record this year. Starting with the soft thump of a kick drum it explodes into a riotous re-reading of the old murder ballad. So many have recorded versions of this, but this surely ranks among the greatest. If I’m wrong, please do let me know. It differs a little lyrically from the jaunty cut Bob Dylan laid down for Self Portrait (video posted at the end of this review) and is a whole different animal in terms of tone. Dylan gives hokey prominence to the lyrics in the manner of a salacious entertainer, polishing the black humour to a high shine. These guys take a different approach, embodying the murderous fury and flight from the law with the musical equivalent of a killer jab of adrenaline. The vocals (either Mike Gangloff or Nathan Bowles, I can’t be sure) are overdriven, ragged and scuffed, part of a rough production technique that truly augments the life in these recordings.
The other highlights of the album are two familiar Jack Rose compositions, given the kind of workout that makes you hope they tape another record together. Jack tackles both with a slide on his Weissenborn lap steel guitar. ‘Revolt’ (heard previously on his Dr Ragtime and Pals LP) is illuminated with some deep, watery banjo and a wail and moan harmonica; Perfect territory for the almost psychedelic slide work to bluster through. ‘Kensington Blues’ is as much the anthem of the peasant king here as it ever was on the record named after it. If there was ever any doubt that this song is a classic, worthy of entry into the folklore that most of this record plucks from, this rendition will surely lay it to rest.
I’ve got to say that I don’t usually go in for this kind of thing. I don’t listen to pre-war blues all that much, and if anything gives off the scent of hoe-down I usually start running. But something in this record lights a fuse I wasn’t aware of, like the first time I heard Bert Jansch and more than a few things fell into place. It’s not just the authenticity, but that’s definitely the key that opens the door. What comes rushing out is world’s worth of experience. Jack Rose and The Black Twig Pickers tell it well, from their side of the ocean, without making an effort to be accessible, palatable, academic or lo-fi. It’s a big fuck you to the gentrification (and homogenisation) of traditional American folk music.