THE BULLINGDON, OXFORD, 18/2/2016
“You know what’s underrated?” asks a cheery but thinner, more boyish-looking Ryley Walker than the one on the promo flyers.
Crowd agrees. We are in prodigious company at the Bullingdon on this eve-of-Friday so yeah, Thursday DOES feel a bit spesh.
“I could be at home, watching Flog It.”
Enter Quipmaster General, Danny Thompson – THE Danny Thompson, upright of bass, Pentangle of fame, bass player of legend and muso partner to the likes of John Martyn, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley. Thompson’s not just a name but a name who’s played with the names that matter, and that’s probably why it first feels like half the Bully are here just for Mr T, but even if that is true then surely they’ll be won over by the jazz-sharp folk-out of Walker’s last album, Primrose Green. What. A. Record. I mean, the influences are subtle as hammers – see above – and some reviewers (hello Pitchfork) mark down the period-piece devotion of the thing, but I don’t see why … the Chicago-based jazz players that Walker’s got behind him are something else, a firesome bunch who could break (on) through those folkier fetters at a second’s notice and go Full Freak. The fact they don’t, even though they come close, adds a taut energy to a beautiful album.
Then there’s Walker himself, bringing midtwentysomething abandon to his intricate playing – check the sublime near-derailment of Sweet Satisfaction and feel the freedom. Turns out he served time in punk/noise bands (big Zep fan too), so you get the sense that Primrose Green is a place for Walker to be, but not to stay – not long term. Wouldn’t surprise me if he took a hike up Ben Chasny Peak or somesuch and roughed up his rootsy picking with noise, drone n mantra.
Back in the Bullingdon on this underrated Thursday, we have no band, no percussion, no electric guitar – basically, none of the non-Ryley star turns from Primrose Green. We’ve got two people: Walker and Thompson, new blood and seasoned master, from opposite ends of the folkpsyche time spectrum. Together, they turn in a blinder.
Walker is the kind of player who loses himself in his songs. He goes for it, hits it hard, throws in barks and shouts, even a Buckley shriek – no doubt these are the tics that critics question – but, affected or not, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. New tracks are aired: I Will Ask You Twice is one, as is a wind-it-up-faster instrumental where Thompson plays bow and Walker goes east, and a track about “people who put Donald Trump signs in their lawn, bitchin’ about everything.” Primrose Green, Hide in the Roses and a set-closing On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee – which, lacking the soft-shuffle percussion of the recorded version, is less bucolic than we’re used to – are the picks from the last album.
So no, we don’t get Sweet Satisfaction – but in another way, we do. Top gig, and no doubt the precocious but raggedly unprecious Walker will revel in this tour with a giant of the genre. Stories for life, eh?