Looking at the album cover for Primrose Green, the critically acclaimed album by Chicago’s Ryley Walker, you may well decide to dig out a roll neck before watching the man play live. The cover could scarcely look more late-60s if you dolled it up in an Afghan coat and passed it the peace pipe. Walker, looking decidedly Astral Weeks, ponders life in a field, presumably ruminating on both the pastoral tranquility around him and the best way of forging an avant garde musical blend of jazz and folk (English and American variants thereupon) with a dash of psychedelic meandering tossed in for good measure. The album carries off that task with something bordering on genius, deftly sidestepping both homage-heavy pastiche and fusty dullardry with a selection of devilish songs, beautifully played and sung by Walker and his gang of hombres.
Transporting that music into a live setting seems a bit of a test when audiences can longer experiment casually with acid, fill a room up with fuggy cigarette smoke and practice free love with barely a care for the consequences, though judging from the demographic in the sold-out Hope, any return to ‘60s style wanton nihilism would require some serious overtime for the paramedics. In reality, it does Walker a disservice to attach too much of a retro tag to him, even in the interests of flippancy, because his music might be steeped in the past but is actually as fresh as the daisies Walker presumably wore liberally about his person during the album photo shoot for Primrose Green.
In the sold out Hope & Ruin (newly refurbished to improve the upstairs gig venue while turning the downstairs bar into the living embodiment of a Thomas Pynchon styled nightmare executed by an acid-addled colour blind 12 year old), Walker wanders onto the stage (sans backing band) looking considerably more Rocky Marciano than Nick Drake , with short black hair and the handsomely rugged face of a boozy pugilist. He announces his arrival with a thanks for Brighton’s hospitality and promptly slugs back some whisky. Truly, you can’t judge every singer by their album cover.
Shorne of both hair and the kick ass jazz-tinged backing band featured on Primrose Green, Walker proves to be a more raw and primal beast in the flesh, his voice booming out over his twelve string guitar, which he bends over intensely, a concentration in study and precision at odds with his loose and entertaining between-song banter. He punctuates his songs with the percussive yelps of Nebraska-era Springsteen, while elements of that scatty style vocal he employs on Primrose Green work with his exceptional guitar work to create a visceral musical gut-punch at every turn. He works his way through some cuts from Primrose Green, notably the title track and Summer Dress. The latter, he mentions in one of his entertaining between-song chats with the crowd, was written while in England, and is one of many references, musical and otherwise that suggest Walker is a bit of an Anglophile. Indeed, it’s not long before he covers John Martyn, a singer and songwriter with whom he shares a distinct boozy virtuousity, and the results are singularly impressive. Walker knows his British folk icons, but proves his Americana credentials too with On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee.
The crowd, generally comprising men of an Uncut subscriber age range, roar their approval after each song, in a swell of murmurs and head nodding. It makes a bit of a change watching a Brighton gig crowd having such a good time. The reaction is understandable, as Walker is an outstanding player, and one with a rough hewn but easy going charisma, and a string of entertaining stories to match his musical intensity. At one point he talks about his dad, recounting watching a Bruce Springsteen gig with him. “Springsteen starts telling the crowd how important it is to support Greenpeace”, says Walker with an amused smile, “and my dad shouts: “Just shut up and play Glory Days!””. Walker chortles at the memory and is clearly having a whale of a time. Getting back to business the singer finds time for a wonderfully romantic run through of Van Morrison’s Fair Play (Walker is effusive in his praise and tells everyone that Veedon Fleece is pretty much his favourite album) before heading off stage to knock back a few with his adoring public.