There’s something a little daunting about writing on the subject of the Black Twig Pickers: an awareness, I guess, that I’m dealing with a world of knowledge and experience that comically exceeds my own. There’s a quote on their website which reads innocuously enough: “Exciting old-time music at its finest.” But it comes from some evidently specialist publication called Bluegrass Unlimited: the Black Twigs might attract dabblers in old-time music, but they privilege, understandably, those who know what they’re talking about.
The thing is, the Black Twig Pickers move in places where a bunch of neophytes may well come into contact with their excellent music. Back home in South West Virginia, they play presumably fairly wild dances. Tonight, though, they’re playing a hushed and genteel jazz club in Dalston, and their new album, “Ironto Special” is out on Thrill Jockey – a terrific and varied label, but not one which has been home to that many deep roots artists.
One exception, of course, is the late Jack Rose, and I assume the Black Twigs came onto Thrill Jockey’s radar thanks to their long association with Rose: both from a shared past in drone outfit Pelt, and as bandmates on the great “Jack Rose And The Black Twig Pickers” disc of a year or so back. Guitarist Charlie Parr has been sitting in with them on some recent gigs, but for this show, the band are down to their core trio: Mike Gangloff, a genial scholar and host who mainly plays fiddle; Isak Howell, a guitarist who provides nimble shunting rhythms rather than leads; and Nathan Bowles, a banjo player with washboard, bones and, intriguingly, fiddlesticks.
It’s a mark of my ignorance that I didn’t actually know what fiddlesticks were until I see Bowles drum on the neck of Gangloff’s fiddle with them. Describing “Smoker Wedding March” in the invaluable sleevenotes to “Ironto Special”, Gangloff writes, “Nathan takes a set of chopsticks to strings I’m not bowing. My fiddles are long-suffering.”
The sound, though, on this and “Love My Honey I Do” is extraordinarily delicate, even harplike. It’s a contrast with the bowing tone of Gangloff’s fiddle, a deliberately harsh sound which gives the Black Twigs a real rawness, a sense that this is music which vigorously avoids gentrification.
It’s also incredibly specific music. Over two longish, compelling sets, Gangloff talks a lot about the local music and musicians of their South-West Virginian neighbourhood, pointing up micro-scenes within the area: the second set features a run of what he calls Copper Hills tunes, curious, he notes, for the fact that their titles – “Never Miss Your Mother ‘Til She’s Gone”, for example – are more or less the only lyrics in the incredible versions.
By the end of the session, it feels like you’ve been inducted in an ancient culture by a trio of good-time missionaries – three musicians who only stop, it seems, when the audience stops making requests – for waltzes rather than specific songs, quaintly – and starts thinning out, prey to the whims of public transport. Given any opportunity, I suspect the Black Twig Pickers would play all night. There would be worse ordeals.