Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary
2.5 stars (out of 5)
Skinny Mammy’s Revenge
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The most recent releases from Boise, Idaho’s Hillfolk Noir, led by Travis and Alison Ward, are lively, risk-taking examples of what can happen when musicians throw their fate toward the wind.
Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary and Skinny Mammy’s Revenge are billed as field recordings, capturing the group—on Old Idaho a seven piece, on Skinny Mammy a quartet—in their natural environs within Boise. The recordings are unencumbered to the point of pretentiousness—a few mics, no sound system in the case of the former, a single mic to analog tape in the case of the latter, 20-track project. Fortunately for Hillfolk Noir, they overcome affectations with aplomb.
Recorded in late 2009, Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary is an inconsistent, ten-track offering played before a small but appreciative audience. Travis Ward carries the water throughout, singing the lead parts over instrumentation that—excepting the percussion—stays largely in the background.
Mandolinist Thomas Paul comes to the fore on occasion, as on “Johnny’s Last Run,” but the intricacies of the band’s arrangements are frequently lost due to production decisions. “Sleeping Under Stars” and “Stealin’” are exceptions where the band is allowed to cut loose a little and this is captured in the recording; unfortunately, the trade-off is that Ward’s vocals are more distant.
The malfeasance often captured in traditional songs is also present including in the slight but enjoyable “N. Idaho Zombie Rag,” featuring the walking (dead) bass of Mike Waite.
Far from perfect, Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary is an album to which one may not frequently return. Still, as an artefact of a time and place in a group’s development, it serves a purpose.
Subtitled The Gage Street Market Sessions, Skinny Mammy’s Revenge features better sound quality and production than its predecessor and as a result is a more complete and listenable project.
Featuring a dozen Travis Ward originals, this album would stand proudly even without the inclusion of various blues and folk standards; with them, the album becomes an hour-long pleasure.
A gorgeous take of Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is bookended by a pair of old-time blues numbers, the first a Ward original. “Broken Record” is one of several Ward compositions contained herein that could have been lifted from a Revenant reissue while “Ragged and Dirty Blues” is familiar from any number of performers including Willie Brown and Sleepy John Estes. A pair of Henry Thomas, Texas blues are ably covered, “Run, Molly, Run” and “Charming Betsy,” while “The Coo Coo” and “Jack of Diamonds” are given a blues bent.
Ward’s songs may not have the authenticity of centuries old standards, but he has mastered the art of replicating their structures. Seldom using more than a dozen lines of lyrics, his blues-based creations, among them “Dyin’ Bed Blues” and “Mr. Wilson’s Lament,” contain the genuine ache, frustration, and turmoil found in tunes much older than he.
Ward uses a resonator guitar throughout, providing a naturally amplified sound to the recording and he lays out some finely played blues riffs. Alison Ward maintains a strong instrumental presence on Skinny Mammy’s Revenge, contributing banjo, saw, and laundraphone which is, I believe, washboard as well as harmony vocals.
Like other old-time revivalists, Hillfolk Noir has found a way to mix their own sound with that of musicians who performed several generations ago. Depending on the song, their music has both old-time, Appalachian string band and Delta blues qualities, making for an uncommon but ultimately sustaining dissonance.
What sets them apart from Old Crow Medicine Show and their ilk is an insistence to not allow themselves to get ahead of the music; by not allowing for pop culture compromise throughout Skinny Mammy’s Revenge, Hillfolk Noir allows their largely unadorned music to stand on its own—for better or worse—and to be absorbed by listeners discovering these types of sounds for the first time.