The Vortex Jazz Bar, London
27 September 2010
My view of this evening is tainted in about 200 different ways and as I haven’t drafted this review I don’t know what you’ll make of it but hang on a minute. I have to explain that when I was younger and more energetic and had more brain power with which to be creative I did used to review music; but after awhile I became bored of my own observations and felt I was often saying the same thing in an emotional way and not really reaching any points of information for the target audiences desiring the over analysis of technical something or anothers. To me writing reviews is work.
This gig is being held in Dalston, a place that despite its recent upturn in hipster popularity remains to me a smelly, dirty, dangerous and ugly no-go area. I have a deep running prejudice against Dalston which I don’t intend to ever give up, which started when I first came to London and which proves its own validity (to me anyway) over and over with unerring consistency. I know you all love Dalston, so I won’t bother you with why – but understand I don’t and won’t like it. It’s spitting rain on me, so it was with a stonewalled heart that I trudged down to Gillett Sqare and observed what looked to me a lot like the bad parts in William Gibson novels to wait for the Vortex to decide to open its doors. I was promised me mountain music (I come from the western North Carolina Smoky Mountains) though, so I thought I’d better behave and give it a go.
To accommodate my bad mood I feel quite cross at the audience. They are all so London, too old to be the Dalston hipsters but obviously really wishing they were. The Vortex has set up their cramped little tables in such a way as to say, “there ain’t going to be no dancing;” in fact you may not even have room to get up and go to the bar. Everyone is too close and I cringe constantly at the conversations around me, apart from one fellow American girl who’s saying she’s about to move to Tennessee. I envy her. After about an hour of abject boredom, The Black Twig Pickers take the stage and not a moment too soon. The fiddle gives me a little false hope of transporting to memoryland, and I unclench my teeth right away.
You see when I was a girl, and a teenager and later a crappy young adult and even now that I’m ageing, this music has been in my life. Sure these guys are from Copper Hill, Virginia, but it’s still the Blue Ridge, same as mine and their traditional songs are what I’ve heard most of my life. My most vivid and pleasant memories are from summer days, something like 4th of July picnics or someone’s birthday party; rare occasions when for whatever reason I have been in attendance at a gig sounding just like this. It’s smoky and smells of barbecue sauce and beer and the heat of it all is constant. There are kids screeching and feet stomping and me, nearly hiding to watch – and listen – lost in a private sort of reverie I didn’t really quite understand but knowing I wanted that sound to continue forever. It usually included some invocations of Jesus, or at rare parts just the banishing of Him. I would sneak away and try to make myself as small as possible and invisible so nobody would bother me. So that I could stay in my own private world of that sultry fiddle and guitar union, so I could sing along with the irreverent and dark (even the ones about Jesus) words. So that I could dig my toes into the dust and hold on to earth, mountain earth that I will one day return to, I hope.
So this London audience: they made no move to find their feet but clapped with quiet embarrassment, nodded their heads and smiled knowingly. They were proud to be at something which would be the talk of the hipsters this season, hopeful to join in a quest for roots music and authentic instrumentation and harmonic playing. The Black Twig Pickers gave it to them in kind without shame for the mistakes and the re-tuning. These are real aspects of mountain music, for if you are going to play at speed the reels and even the waltzes of fine afternoon hoedowns you are going to drop a string to a wrong key, your voice is going to crack and you are going to have to consistently pull back together to keep up with the twangs. I felt these guys were very good at reverse hospitality, making themselves completely at home in this alien environment so far away from home. They were clearly unconcerned with all the things that were making me edgy, but try as I did I could not escape the distraction and I could not lose myself in my familiarities. When Nathan Bowles, the main banjo picker got out fiddle sticks to accompany Mike Gangloff on the fiddle I nearly cried not having seen such done in more than 30 years. But even that couldn’t get me the hell out of Dalstonrage.
What I had to admit finally was that they were just too good, too real. I was being ornery and spiteful and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. What finally eclipsed my grumpy outlook was a deep seeded homesickness which The Black Twig Pickers evoked in me. I completely failed to enjoy this show because of my own lonely sickness of the heart which only comes when a person has been too long away from home. Me and everybody ever born in the Smoky Mountains have an attachment that the rest of the world may not be able to fathom. For the very granite that make up our dear mountains and the sap that binds the pines to earth, for the music that echoes the whipoorwills and the purity of the mountain songs – the band have packed it up in cases and delivered it in the most unlikely place and nearly driven me to home.
I recommend you take a look at this band, I believe they have a record out called Ironto Special. If you are at all from my lands you will understand immediately.