LIVE: Ryley Walker @ the Half Moon, 5/16/15

Review by Greg Haymes
Video and photographs by Timothy Raab

Ryler Walker has big ears and an open heart – which is to say that his daring music is a deftly blended amalgam of a multitude of musical genres and he isn’t afraid to lay it all on the line, emotionally speaking.

In support of his stunning, recently released sophomore album, Primrose Green, the 25-year-old Chicago-based acoustic guitar phenom made his Nippertown debut recently at the Half Moon in Hudson. It was a dazzling hour-long display of the American Primitivism guitar stylings pioneered by John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang and carried into the 21st century by such fretboard masters as Daniel Bachman, Steve Gunn and William Tyler – mind-boggling finger-picking rooted in traditional folk, but applied to more of an avant-garde, neo-classical aesthetic.

Accompanied by the sublimely understated electric guitar playing of Brian Sulpizio, Walker sat on a stool, bent over his guitar in concentration, often swiveling his whole body back and forth in a physical manifestation of the trance-like musical groove that they conjured up together. Following a seven-minute instrumental introduction, Walker slid gracefully into “On the Banks of the Old Kishawaukee,” which proved to be the most traditional sounding selection of his hour-long set. It was, however, hardly traditional.

But Walker is more than an inventive guitarslinger. When he approaches the microphone, he unleashes a fearless, soulful howl – equal parts Tim Buckley, Van Morrison and Tim Hardin – that lifts the music to another level altogether. It became fierce, emotionally committed jazz. Vocally, he stepped out far onto the limb and delivered with total abandon, unleashing the song without regard for hitting the “right” note, and yet each note seemed to fit pitch-perfectly.

With two guys with guitars sitting down on the tiny stage, it might have looked like a typical folk show at first glance. But this was a full-throttle blitzkrieg of a performance, brimming over with ocean waves of dynamics. Before launching into the title track of the new album, Walker smiled wryly and quietly informed the crowd, “This is some ass-shakin’ music,” as he put a decidedly psychedelic spin on the go-for-baroque folk gem – part Nick Drake on steroids, part “Embryonic Journey,” part pumped-up Pentangle, and yet wholly, undeniably Ryley Walker.

And by the time he wrapped up his performance with the relentlessly churning, raga-like chime of “Summer Dress” on 12-string guitar, the intensity had risen to almost alarming levels. His strumming was bold and aggressive. His fingers flew up and down the fretboard, seemingly with minds of their own. And then with a big, final blast of feedback, the song (and the night) came to a blissful end.

Led by vocalist-guitarist Wednesday Knudsen, the three-piece Austerlitz-based band Pigeons opened the show with a somewhat similar psychedelic spin, swirling through a 50-minute set, highlighted by their opening “Underneath the Maple Tree,” from their new album, The Bower.

On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee
Primrose Green
Funny Thing She Said
Summer Dress

NOTE: Ryley Walker is headed back to Nippertown next month to play on Saturday, June 27 at the Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams. And during a pre-show chat at the Half Moon bar, he revealed that he’ll be bringing his whole band with him. Walker is also scheduled for a performance at the BSP Lounge in Kingston at 8:30pm on Tuesday, June 30.




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