Better seen than simply heard
Yesterday afternoon, three people asked me the same question about my evening’s entertainment plans: “Why are you going to that
show?” The gig belonged to Ryley Walker, an Illinois guitarist and singer-songwriter whose second record, Primrose Green, I dismissed as an act of “pure creative anachronism and affectation” earlier this year.
Why, then, take a bus from Durham to Chapel Hill and catch a late-night ride back to Raleigh just to see someone you don’t like play music? It’s a fair question, I suppose.
Thing is, though, I like
Ryley Walker, a lot. His guitar playing (perhaps more informed by the points of Pentangle than the fingers of Fahey) is both riveting and effortless, and his sense of musical immersion is dedicated and deep. I’ve been listening pretty steadily to tapes of a few of his sets from earlier this year
, and he and whatever casual band he happens to be leading often rip into wonderful improvisational trances—at their best, beautiful, bleary-eyed, transporting stuff. Despite my misgivings about both of Walker’s albums, why wouldn’t I see his show?
Working in a duo format with electric guitarist Brian Sulpizio, Walker did not disappoint. For an hour, he broke only to make quick, perfect quips about Chapel Hill’s joggers and North Carolina’s license plates (“Joggers and planes, this is the place to be!”), to introduce the occasional song or to alternate between 12-string and 6-string acoustic guitar. Mostly he sat up straight in a stage-left chair, his legs folded high, and explored every ripple of every riff and melody he and Sulpizio played. They zigged and zagged through the rhythmic twists of “On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee, ”
emphasizing the song’s back-and-forth riverine sway, and pulled into and pushed against the melody of “Summer Dress.” During “Primrose Green,” Walker’s left hand danced along the neck, moving up and down and stretching its strings of notes until they became more like a canvas.
On Primrose Green
, those songs seem hemmed in even when the band gets wild, as though Walker were forcing the action into a certain set of expectations; but on stage, he just rolled with the ideas, working through thematic variations until he and Sulpizio seemed to tire of them. I sat on the floor, closed my eyes and listened to them explore, their two-piece dance somehow complex and easy, graceful and daring. On stage, Walker’s voice was more exaggerated than on his albums, close enough to his Anglo ancestors to feel at times like pantomime. But the words felt only like a sidecar to the playing, anyway, an optional accessory for enjoyment that I mostly avoided for the two-guitar indulgence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I lost that feeling when Walker closed the evening with a customary and faithful cover of “Fair Play,” from Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece.
If you’ve ever heard his songs, you know he can mimic Morrison just fine. At show’s end, the cover simply seemed redundant for the night and reductive of his considerable talents.
There are too many albums now, or at least too many to choose from in too little time, given our access to YouTube and Bandcamp, Soundcloud and Spotify—depositories of options we will never even hear. For that reason, it can often seem I’m rushing to judgment as a fan and a critic, eager to decide if something "deserves" my time so that, if not, I can skip to something that might. To me, that’s what’s so redeeming about watching Walker, especially at this moment in his young career. I haven’t loved either of his records, but I’m confident that, one day, he’ll stun me on tape as on stage. If waiting for that moment means taking the time to sit on the Cat’s Cradle Back Room’s concrete floor and watch him dazzle with 12 strings for an hour, sure, I’m willing to bargain for a spell.