Ryley Walker is an artist for whom genres are irrelevancies and traditional notions of place and time are non-existent. With a musical attitude that transcends any one style, Walker’s live show is imbued with a timelessness that frees it of the hallmarkings of any one era. Although resolutely a product of the modern age, the free-form experimentation that colourises Walker’s live show could just as easily have come from any of the past five decades.
Amongst the most devoted of Walker’s attentive but cult audience, there’s grown a culture of Grateful Dead-esque fandom; live recordings are traded and collected with the sort fervour usually associated with long-running jam bands, even if here it’s on a small scale. Walker’s staggeringly rigorous work ethic and ceaselessly adventurous attitude have no doubt helped facilitate that kind of strong fandom; Walker – a Chicagoan – has visited the UK comfortably over 10 times in the past two years and numerous more throughout the past half decade. With a tour schedule strenuous enough to make Dylan dizzy at the mere thought, it’s a wonder that Walker – and an ever changing cast of collaborators – find the energy to continuously innovate and explore and yet, somehow, they do.
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For those who have attended any of Walker’s numerous Brighton shows over the past few years, the transcendental exploration on show tonight will not be a surprise, although the acutely organic jams themselves certainly are. For those only familiar with Walker’s recorded output, tonight’s show may deliver something of the unexpected. Last year’s superb ‘Golden Sings That Have Been Sung’ certainly hints at the extraneous nature of Walker’s musical inclinations but in comparison it’s slight, with most songs in the region of five minutes or so; a fractional portion of some of the freakouts heard tonight.
One of the most compelling characteristics of Walker’s live show is his tendency to add extended prologues to some of his best known tracks; set opener ‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ is met with whoops of appreciation once it takes recognisable shape but that’s some 10 minutes into the song, the preceding time having been spent creating a drone rock atmosphere of headily spinning lead guitar, flighty, tempestuous jazz drums and smoothly snaking bass. Even those intimately familiar with the song would have no way of recognising it by the fully instrumental jam that precedes it. Such lengthy explorations are certainly not for all – one or two people can’t quite get in the mood and leave early – but it’s their loss; Walker is one of the most compelling live artists currently operational and one that ultimately blows his own – very high quality – studio records out of the water with the sheer passion and energy of his live performance.
Such improvisational glee is impossible to establish without a group of like-minded musicians, of course, and Walker seems to know plenty of them. Previous UK shows have seen him play with a bewildering array of talent but tonight he’s joined by long time associate Brian Sulpizio on lead guitar, Andrew Scott Young on Bass and Ryan Jewell on drums. Even by the high standards that previous incarnations of Walker’s group have set, tonight’s band is extremely impressive. With a seemingly psychic link and an almost telekinetic ability to bully airwaves into the ears of the audience, they’re a band more than able to take Walker’s songs and put their own distinct stamp on them. Jewell’s drums are, by turns, played with the delicate precision of a dancer and smashed with elephantine exuberance, while Sulpizio and Young offer a stylish counterpoint to Walker’s own playing.
Earlier recordings saw Walker operate in a more traditionally folk context and made predominant use of acoustic guitar. While the instrument does get an airing tonight, Walker instead focuses most of his energy on the instrument’s electric sibling. Although capable of creating a deeply rich and, at times, surprisingly frantic sound from the acoustic, the move towards more electric instrumentation has enabled Walker do what he’s only hinted at in the past and go full-on noise rock. There’s an almost Neu!-ish streak to the tight rhythms and screeching guitars of one, especially compelling, new instrumental tonight – and throughout the evening, Walker and band hint at a more complex, mature version of the out-and-out noise music that Walker revelled in a decade or so ago.
It’s an intoxicating and salient brew of sounds that gives a nod to various influences and styles but never fully commits to any of them. In the hands of lesser musicians, it’s a sound that could collapse under the weight of its own ambition – not here, though. All in the band tonight have the technical know-how to fully and stylishly articulate the swelling ambition of the music they play. Ryley Walker’s albums may cement him as one of the great modern singer/songwriters but it’s his live show that really shines. Tonight’s show is ambitious, daring and utterly captivating.