Hillbilly Hell

16th Open House Festival continues with a celebration of blues and roots at the Empire Music Hall in Belfast

Until June 26, the Open House Festival is in Belfast, playing host to a wide array of American country, roots and bluegrass events.

The fiercely independent, not-for-profit music charity has organised another fine programme, but it's difficult to imagine anything surpassing Hillbilly Hell.

The Empire Music Hall on Botanic Avenue is a perfect venue for any genre of music, but its illustrious stage and dance hall décor seems particularly fitting for the old-timey entertainment on offer tonight.

Kicking things off in suitable style are two-thirds of Belfast’s own Hardchargers. Chris Todd and Richard J Hodgen take to the stage while bass player David Thompson is missing from the evening’s proceedings – not that you would know from the noise they make, because these boys sure can play.

Sitting as though they were kicking back in their own kitchen, they get toes tapping and heads nodding the minute they strike up their first song. Hodgen creates a suitably rustic vibe with washboard, kick drum and snare. Meanwhile Todd is a flawless, idiosyncratic slide guitar player.

He has a voice too, straight from the Mississippi Delta, sounding thoroughly authentic where so many others can feel hackneyed. It’s actually quite jarring to hear him between songs bantering casually in his own Belfast accent, but these guys are too good to cheapen the show with some forced patter.

Formed in 2009, they have a slew of EPs under their belt and have notched up an impressive number of live shows, something highlighted by the fact that this isn’t their only gig tonight. They play regularly up and down the country, so do yourself a favour and make it to one of their shows.

After a short interlude it’s time for The Revered Peyton’s Big Damn Band. Hailing from the foothills of Southern Indiana, the band consists of the Rev Peyton on guitar, his wife Breezy on washboard and Ben ‘Bird Dog’ Bussell on drums.

Steeped in pre-Second World War blues and country since he was 12-years-old, the Reverend is the real deal. He plays guitar fingerstyle in the vein of the original blues men like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, and creates the sound of three instruments, something he alludes to as he introduces new track 'Let’s Jump a Train'.

‘When you hear this on the record, I want you to know that I didn’t use no pedals, no loops, nothin’ but human hands.' This effect is also beautifully displayed during a tender solo performance halfway through the show of Charlie Patton’s 'Some of These Days'. Stripped down to just the Rev and a cigar box guitar, his sound of the Deep South is a delight.

Elsewhere the show is a foot-stomping, caterwauling, raucous affair. The trio specialise in a swampy, down and dirty blues that has the audience jiving and hollering along, most notably when they play 'Clap Your Hands', a junkyard boogie with mandatory audience participation and an evening highlight.

Dressed in blue overalls, Peyton is a behemoth of a man and never stops moving. His stuff-strutting is more than matched by his wife Breezy on washboard, whose aggressive and entertaining showmanship culminates in her setting her instrument on fire during the final song.

It’s hard to think of a band in any genre that create a better atmosphere or put on a better show, and anyone who questions how a three-piece can be called a ‘Big Damn Band’ have obviously never heard them. If the Belfast music shops see an increase in washboard sales, it will undoubtedly be because the Rev sent ‘em.

Open House Festival runs in venues throughout Belfast until June 26 and then in Bangor from August 1 – 31.

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