Ryley Walker is a young American guitar artist, his artistry clearly in the instrumental work across a variety of open tunings and finger-picking dexterity that is quite outstanding, and also in the jazz-infused songcraft where, on record - especially his most recent Primrose Green - his backing band augments those inflections, and, in live performance, the extended jamming as with last night at the wonderful St George’s in Bristol. That he was accompanied there by the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass augmented this performance to levels of bliss.
Midway through last night’s gig Walker referred to one of the instrumental improvs as a ‘boogie jam’ which I quite like as an upbeat assessment, but it struck me that they were most like ragas, and his performance of these seems characterised by a trance-like immersion in the soloing where sudden bursts of chord strikes are balanced by delicate finger-picks and occasionally the sweetest minor chord sequences.
All the time Thompson played his exquisite bass where dropping into the lower notes resonates with such soothing power, and then he bends glorious notes to meander within the tunes. The audience was clearly gathered to see Danny playing as much as Ryley – judging from his reception – but it was palpable how Walker asserted his presence in a mutually assured construction of folkjazz symmetry, this their first gig of a tour and perfectly at ease in the virtuoso partnership.
Walker is also a consummate folk artist, this also more evident I would guess in a live performance of acoustic guitar – though amped – and double bass, compared with on record, though his first All Kinds of You veers more to this than the jazzier and at times psychedelic PG. His singing is also heavily influenced by a folk tradition, the obvious echoes of influences like Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and John Martyn. In his more trance-vocals, one can hear Tim Buckley and Van Morrison with yelps and hollers and grunts and other guttural expressions of emotion. His vocal variations on the singular word alright were hypnotic.
The main set last night ended on Primrose Green, and its distinctive riff remained with me long afterwards. Most affecting personally, however, was the first song of the subsequent encore, a gentle acoustic playing and singing of Sweet Satisfaction, the most poignant of the John Martyn echoes of the evening. Walker doesn’t use his voice quite like the instrument Martyn eventually made his own distinctive sound, but he did sing with the beautiful clarity of earlier Martyn, and the chord sequence, as well as slap playing, could have been a song from JM’s early period too. All the time this was being performed I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of nostalgic reverie was going through Thompson’s mind, such a long-time musical collaborator and great friend of John Martyn. I think I saw these two play live together twice many, many years ago, and Thompson must have a sense of fond memory when performing with the youthful Walker, reminding of those days. I have no doubt that any such sentimentality – nothing wrong in that – is wrapped in a profound professional regard from the senior legend to the emerging talent of Walker, whose volatile life exploits and experiences would seem to mirror some of the boisterous existentialism of the Thompson/Martyn years!
Review/comments previously on Ryley Walker on this blog can be found here.