By Lani Weil
For a show that begins at 10:30 PM on Tuesday night, one who chooses to attend probably is one of two things: a) unwaveringly devoted to the music or b) blindly driven by drunken will. Though the only thing I could claim to be was stuffed with scallion pancakes, I entered the warm and intimate venue that is Great Scott a stranger to Ryley Walker’s music. What I found was a sea of ogling eyes of various ages and genders, waiting with bated breath for Ryley Walker to take the stage, all precisely identifying as the first category, though perhaps peppered by the second.
As the band of four took the stage, the smug grin of Ryley Walker was mirrored by the ecstatic crowd. Walker was joined by his three tour mates, Ryan Jewell on drums, Andrew Young on bass, and Brian Sulpizio on guitar. While the crowd rang with amusement and excitement, Walker exuded an immediate ease and comfort with his audience, immediately launching into the music.
With the a voice that is reminiscent of Tim Buckley and Dave Matthews alike, Walker can sound mournful, soulful and skeptical at the same time. Though the set consisted of six songs, the expanse of sonic soundscapes that the four members encompassed was exponential. With tempered rhythms and interwoven guitar parts, Walker created a familiar yet dissonant feeling of comfort and demoralizing uncertainty. While working together in a cacophony of lyrical precision, the music brought the folk sound of Walker’s past with a newly formed sonic excitement and engagement.
Though each instrumentalist provided essential layers to the musical experience, Ryan Jewell’s drumming conveyed complexities that brought jazz meters into close proximity with southern rock driven guitar lines. Towards the end of the show, Jewell, while playing his full drum set, gripped a chain of small glass bottles in his mouth, swinging his head in a rhythmic manner, discordant yet melding with the rhythmic base of his drums.
At times, Walker could be seen gritting his teeth in what could be read as a response to a note he didn’t quite hit or the grit of the progression that he was building on his guitar. Each instrument seamlessly fed into the complex webs of sonic explosion that Walker set forth. Through cheeky banter that spurred a mix of laughter and echoed praise, Walker exhibited an extensive knowledge of musical foundation and geography. Espousing his love for Mission of Burma and The Swirlies, Walker schmoozed the crowd in musically debaucherous wit, later joking about drunkenly finding one’s way to the band Godsmack, a 90s Boston-based musical group.
The band’s performance of “Spoil With the Rest” from Walker’s recent release Deafman Glance speaks to an aesthetic informed by early 2000s alternative rock, which can be traced to sonic palates of The Strokes and more pop oriented bands like Switchfoot, while expanding layers into more rhythmically diverse and complex melodic lines. Walker’s lyrical genius is illuminated by his daily quandaries in mundane situations and reflections on past relationships.
With his earlier sound, Walker placed a greater emphasis on finger-picking guitar compositions, imparting reminiscent glances at what was familiar within the indie folk genre. As reflected by his choice to play “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee,” a track of his 2015 album Primrose Green, Walker presented an anecdotally informed composition, harkening back to his suburban Illinois background. Walker also brought in his 2016 release, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, to the fold, appending expanded jams into each piece.
Walker’s current tour is in promotion of his double 2018 release which consisted of Deafman Glance and The Lillywhite Sessions, which both exhibit a considerably different approach and execution of sound for Walker. As a further testament to Walker’s unique approach and obliteration of a precise genre, The Lillywhite Sessions are comprised of unreleased Dave Matthews Band material recorded between 1990 and 2000. While the material was initially was never released due to its status as too dark, it leaked via early digital file sharing sites. Though DMB eventually released several of these songs, Walker revealed his love for DMB while leaning into his more experimental style.
It is clear that the musical level that the band achieves on stage is a product that Walker has tirelessly reworked and painstakingly crafted for years, that now stands as an opus of will and self-awareness. Though I had only listened to a few songs by Walker prior to the show, the rambling yet severe drive of each piece at Tuesday night’s show brought me into the fold, establishing familiarity while presenting surprises in every composition. By the end of the show, I too was the first category of the late night show blues, a devoted audience member and a fan.