Although Illinois raised and Chicago based, Ryley Walker is difficult to pin down geographically. His music is unashamedly a direct descent of the 1970’s UK folk scene, but there’s an Atlantic undertow that pulls those influences westward. His second album, Primrose Green, will be released at the end of March and is sure to raise a few eyebrows. The music glories in the colourful jazz and folk fusions that grew from that era; and his voice takes on the tones, style and passion of Jansch, Buckley and Martyn with beguiling mastery.
[pullquote]When the vocals open in ‘Summer Dress’ it’s Tim Buckley in the flesh, no one else could deliver a vocal performance like that…until now.[/pullquote] First impressions could tempt the unwary into making the mistake of approaching Walker as some sort of tribute act. The first three tracks on the album evoke, in turn, Bert Jansch, Tim Buckley and John Martyn and it would be easy to fall into that trap. In the opening title track, Primrose Green, the Pentangle vibe is unmistakable and executed to perfection. But Ryley isn’t simply copying, he’s genuinely captured the spirit of what Jansch and his fellows achieved, but adapted the mood to include his own musical nuances – a touch of piano adding a trippy twist. When the vocals open in Summer Dress it’s Tim Buckley in the flesh, no one else could deliver a vocal performance like that…until now. The third aspect of Ryley Walker’s holy trinity is epitomised in Same Minds; the tone is smoky and rough with reverb, with Ryley displaying the same love for the slurred consonant and the primal moan as John Martyn did.
I suspect that, if anything, this triptych opening is simply a trap; a test, even. Find the beating heart in the music or dismiss it as you will. These songs weren’t born of a sudden need to emulate the greats of earlier days. Ryley’s been developing his guitar technique and his musical style since his days playing Chicago’s basement clubs from 2007 onwards. He isn’t ashamed of revelling in his musical influences, but neither is he afraid to take them in new directions.
A hustle bustle of percussion and electric organ dominate the gloriously extensive introduction to Love Can Be Cruel and provide an unfamiliar setting for a love song. In Sweet Satisfaction there’s tooth grinding reverb alongside the jaw-dropping, frantic drumming. The spirit of John Martyn, however, is still waving from the window with a dopey smile. But in Griffiths Bucks Blues, Walker shows every sign of settling down into his very own sound with a guitar piece that, although firmly rooted in 60s/70s, still conveys a sense of something new and exciting.
In contrast, the agelessness of On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee led me on a fruitless search for original sources and other versions – pointless as, just like every other song on the album, it’s one of Ryley’s own. It’s a light spiritual brimming with irony and muddy water. In this rare taste of old American there’s just a hint of UK regional accent that’s at odds with his US upbringing. The High Road is a smooth as silk travelling song with a short, sublime string arrangement at its conclusion.
Closing the album with Hides In the Roses shows Ryley in a different light – with only voice and solo guitar, but instead of opting for a soft, melodic conclusion, Ryley delivers a love song with a harsh edge to his voice and a simply stunning solo guitar.
Ryley Walker writes songs that reach deep, and sings them from the depth of his own soul. He plays guitar like he was born clutching a fret board and has never let go. He does far more than invoke the spirit of the great musicians that have inspired his music – he takes their music forward, gives it a genuine 21st Century voice and brings their influence to bear on a whole new generation.
This accomplished song writing would never reach the light of day in such an eloquent fashion without the contribution made by the incredible group of musicians Walker’s amassed during the eight year build up to this album. There’s a sense of an earthy, visceral connection in the combination of Brian Sulpizio’s guitar and Ben Boye’s piano. The driving, jazz-laced percussion that peppers the album comes courtesy of Frank Rosaly and is so expertly tempered by the laconic double bass of Anton Hatwich, who seems to understand the pace and the mood better than any other bassist possibly could. The string section of Fred Lonberg-Holm on Cello and Whitney Johnson on viola bring fluidity and there’s even a moment when Johnson adds something almost tribal to the Ryley’s guitar in Griffiths Bucks Blues.
It would be narrow minded and elitist to shrug Walker off as an impersonator. He’s been drawn irresistibly to the music of an earlier age, it’s permeated his being and then demanded release. At the moment Ryley Walker could no more abandon the musical influences that have shaped his art than give up playing the guitar. Driven to perform and hungry for an outlet, Ryley Walker delivers bursts of nostalgia, strongly spiced with passages (not moments) of true genius, through contemporary media and with utter sincerity. On Primrose Green he overflows; you’re left feeling he has a couple more hours of enthralling music to offer, but there just isn’t the time. Yet. Ryley Walker’s hour has finally begun and it’s going to be damn fine.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
UK & European Tour Dates
Wed, 08. April Denmark, Copenhagen, Copenhagen Jazzhouse
Thu, 09. April Norway, Oslo, Internasjonalen
Fri, 10. April Sweden, Stockholm, Grand Central
Sat, 11. April Denmark, Aalborg, 1000Fryd
Sun, 12. April Germany, Rostock, JAZ
Mon, 13. April Germany, Berlin, Monarch
Sat, 18. April UK, London, Sebright Arms
Sun, 19. April UK, Manchester, The Castle
Mon, 20. April UK, Bristol, The Birdcage
Released March 30th 2015 via Dead Oceans
Order via Amazon