Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton
10 July 2012
Just when I was feeling regretful about not heading up to Stornoway for this year's HebCeltFest, another distinctive, vibrant and immersive folk tradition comes a-calling here in Brighton...
The Black Twig Pickers brought their irresistible, stomping Appalachian songs and tunes to Sticky Mike's Frog Bar last night and it was, as I commented afterwards to the band's fiddle/banjo virtuoso Mike Gangloff, as if the Anthology of American Folk Music had come to town. But don't be put off: this is no dry musicology, but the living, breathing, dancing, real thing.
The trio come from a corner of Virginia 'where West Virginia is north and North Carolina is south', as Gangloff helpfully explained. For this tour Sally Morgan (fiddle/guitar/dance-calling/slapped legs, etc) joins Gangloff and Nathan Bowles (banjo/percussion) because third core member Isak Howell couldn't make it.
They reeled off two sets' worth of fine music with an endearingly casual stage manner - and some winningly appalling jokes (like the corduroy pillow that is making headlines - you have been warned). The explanations of how they had come to learn (or, in some cases, write) the songs revealed their deep immersion in the local music - like links with Henry Reed's musical family including twins Gene and Dean, now in their eighties but still harbouring a grudge because a birth certificate mix-up had allowed one to retire from the power plant 12 months before the other...
A couple of numbers featured fiddlesticks: Nathan beating out a rhythm with chopsticks on Mike's fiddle strings as he played. it was the first time I'd seen it done and it works really well, as part of a regularly shifting dynamic of instrument changes and solo spots. They even managed to get a segment of a smallish but very enthusiastic audience square dancing.
Two hours and a thoroughly deserved encore later, Mike took time to show me his fretless banjo when I asked about it. Talented, charming, authentic, friendly: don't miss them if they're in your town.