US Jazz/folk young gun stuns London crowd
Hoxton Bar & Grill, 02/09/15
The autumnal rain that precedes Ryley Walker’s set is apt tonight. There’s a joyful, freeing feel to his latest work mixed with a creeping sense of foreboding dark clouds across the horizon. His music is a perfect gumbo of West Coast sun dappled psych-folk mixed with free jazz inflections and a lyrical content that, not unlike the Soho Folk boom of the mid-late ’60s aims to reflect the conflicting nature of everyday life.
However, don’t be mistaken in thinking it’s simply a re-enactment of a long lost vibe. In the live context, Walker’s compositions are a platform for things to go well beyond the confines of any Nick Drakeisms that plague a musician who utilises the fingerpicking acoustic guitar style as their primary weapon. His original material has been growing in stature amongst those in the know, and there’s an anticipation to see how the songs have evolved during the touring process.
A notorious vinyl fanatic — for proof, see his involvement in the recently reissued primitive guitar gem on Tompkins Square; John Hulbert’s Opus III – at 26, Walker has grown up during the emergence of a truly creative period in US-independent guitar-based music. He is continually discovering (via John Fahey and Sonny Sharrock, amongst others) the sources and more extreme ends of what his instrument can do and emphatically displays his capabilities during a spellbinding set.
Perhaps the difficulty to date has been that what he does live hasn’t quite come across in the recorded work of his initial two long players but, judging by set-opener ‘Sullen Mind’ which draws the crowd into silence, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before it will. Taking the bold move of playing this new song to open with shows the sense of fearlessness he has. ‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ follows; along with the title track of his second LP, ‘Primrose Green’. However, tonight they’re transmogrified into paeans that transcend the original recordings by a country mile. The former feels like it starts a little further up the river, evoking the sights and sounds of the Mississippi to a small, packed room on the other side of the world, whilst the latter (“We’re playing the hits tonight!” he jokes) takes a sideways lurch into a shuffling old school, almost Doors-like groove for several minutes before the introductory riff is played and becomes recognisable from the record’s languorous take.
There are no slouches in his band either; Brian J Sulpizio’s melodious yet fierce guitar work complements the more ferocious elements of Walker’s frenzied strumming throughout, whilst also equally able to provide a lilting tone to ‘Primrose Green’. The sound is anchored by Anton Hatwich’s Double Bass and Ståle Liavik Solberg’s drums, providing dexterous fingerwork and shimmering cymbal action respectively on another as yet unreleased song, ‘Funny Thing She Said’. Keyboardist Ben Boye, who has been Walker’s foil in the musical direction for many of the set’s wilder moments, draws out unearthly sounds in the song’s beginning, even going so far as to use a set of house keys on the keys(!) which gives an ethereal quality to the proceedings.
Despite it being early days, Walker is already being heralded in some circles for taking on the mantle of psych-folk. But, it’s not where he’s at, it’s where he will take it that makes him so thrilling. It’s also telling that only one song (‘Clear The Sky’) is played from his 18-month old debut, All Kinds Of You. The sound Walker is developing continues to captivate. With a voice that veers between mellifluous and delicate – as displayed during a beatific solo spot covering Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ and John Martyn’s take on ‘Cocain’ – to the guttural, primal howls and yelps on ‘Summer Dress’, his intensity is mesmerising, whilst the band can only do their damnedest to keep the train on the track. No matter how seemingly reckless it gets, the beauty of it all is that Walker doesn’t know any more than the lucky few who attended this event, what’s going to happen next.
Bowing out with a sublime, gossamer-light cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Fair Play’, there’s no doubting the crowd’s rapt appreciation, having witnessed a near flawless set of old, new and borrowed tunes.
It’s great to see him at this emerging stage of his career. Watch Ryley Walker go – it’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride!
M Le Breton