By: Alex Wood
Following Ryley Walker somehow gives the feeling that you’re on to something.
It’s not just that he’s from Chicago, or that he’s worked for years to make a name for himself. It’s not just the timeless yet completely unique sound he’s mastered by the age of 27. It’s not just the sheer technical proficiency of his live band.
It’s a combination of all these things. It’s an experience.
Ryley Walker performed at Empty Bottle on Thursday as a record release show for his excellent new full-length Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. Though the six-song set felt criminally short, the songwriter’s hour-long performance was beyond impressive, demonstrating the merit of both his new songs and live band throughout.
Walker’s band took up every inch of Empty Bottle’s small stage, with six members total. A drummer and upright bassist stood in the back, with two multi-instrumentalists behind keyboards, a second guitarist and Walker in front.
The intense live setup promised a massive sound, which the band certainly delivered.
Walker opened with “Age Old Tale,” the last song from the new record. The band members eased into the track, extending the instrumental intro into a psychedelic, Doors-esque jam that incorporated harp and organ.
The jazz-oriented rhythm section kept time as the guitarists allowed the song to swell constantly upward, creating a colossal sound for Walker’s delicate vocals to eventually lie atop.
This isn’t folk. This isn’t psych. This isn’t rock. But man, this is something.
Though Walker sounds fantastic performing alone on an acoustic guitar, his spattered melodies and intricate finger picking sounding far too easy on tracks like “The Roundabout,” the phenomenal backing band remained the highlight, bringing new life to the songs’ mature chord progressions and riffs.
And this maturity certainly came through in the new songs.
“Sullen Mind” was a highlight of the set, beginning as a spacey, acoustic folk track but building to a massive electric jam by its finish, the layers of interlocking instrumentation drawing easy comparisons to a young Grateful Dead.
This isn’t easy music to get into, but its challenging nature brings a great reward when it truly clicks.
Walker performed five of the eight songs from Golden Sings before finishing with the title-track of last year’s Primrose Green.
The song was especially mesmerizing in the live setting, it’s intricate guitar melodies flourishing to unbelievable heights, a machine-gun spattering of notes from each musician fitting perfectly into a complex musical tapestry combining traditional folk, psychedelic rock and jazz with flawless accuracy.
Defying all genres or labels, Ryley Walker has seemed to settle into a musical space that makes him amongst the most exciting and unique acts today.
The Chicagoan may be exactly what the music scene needs, and is certainly on to something big, something to experience.
1. Age Old Tale
2. The Roundabout
3. Sullen Mind
4. The Halfwit In Me
5. The Great And Undecided
6. Primrose Green
June 6th, 2016 at Pritzker Pavilion.
At the 2016 Levitation Festival at Thalia Hall