Gig review: Ryley Walker at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Ryley Walker. Picture: Dusdin CondrenRyley Walker. Picture: Dusdin Condren
Ryley Walker. Picture: Dusdin Condren
Considering Ryley Walker's deep debt to the British fusion of folk, blues and jazz that was in full bloom in the late 60s and early 70s, this collaborative tour with Danny Thompson seems not only natural but almost inevitable.

As such, it’s extremely unfortunate that the 76-year old veteran whose double bass infused classic recordings by such seminal influences for Walker as Nick Drake, Pentangle, Bert Jansch and, most notably, John Martyn with soulful, pulsating grooves has had to sit out the Leeds stop of the duo’s tour, a rare no-show for a tireless musician who, as Walker points out, never misses a gig.

The crowd is several times the size of that which attended the 26-year-old Chicagoan’s Leeds debut at this same venue’s small games room last year. If Walker’s fazed by the task of having to entertain a sold out Brudenell (populated no doubt in part by people keen to see the legendary Thompson return to the city that provided the setting for one of his illustrious career’s most enduring triumphs, John Martyn’s 1975 album Live at Leeds) on his lonesome, he manages to give the exact opposite impression.

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Not only does Walker hold the packed room’s attention throughout with just an acoustic guitar and his voice for ammunition, he keeps the typically well-lubricated Friday night crowd interested with a set dedicated almost entirely to new material, most likely drawn from the follow-up to last year’s acclaimed Primrose Green, due for release in September.

Following Meg Baird’s compelling, hushed support set of spectral balladry, Walker’s astoundingly nimble guitar-playing seems almost unsettlingly propulsive; the old cliche of a single guitar sounding like an orchestra really does seem apt in this case.

The vocal acrobatics that threatened to slide towards a Tim Buckley (who Danny Thompson also worked with) tribute act territory when Walker last played here have been toned way down; combined with the wordier, introspective but never glum new tunes (cuts most likely called A Solemn Mind and Funny Thing She Said prove particularly promising), Walker appears to be on the verge of nailing a style and songwriting voice that are 100 per cent his own.

He’s a born entertainer too, responding to heckles with on the spot comedy; at one point, Walker downs a pint donated by a fan in one, only to regret this attempt to – as he puts it – look cool when the glass turns out to contain a particularly potent barley-based beverage. But it’s the music and Walker’s increasing versatility with it that really leaves a lasting impression.

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When a familiar song – Summer Dress, off Primrose Green – finally rolls around during the encore, the tune’s sunburnt, hedonistic sentiments are delivered with such blunt force – with effect-laden guitar sounding like a particularly ticked off wind – it’s virtually unrecognisable, a laidback, celebratory tune about “feeling alright” rendered in an agitated style that suggests the singer is anything but. 

Keeping with the ever-evolving habits of vintage influences, Walker clearly has zero influence in standing still, which makes his next move very interesting. “I remember arriving in Leeds but I can’t remember leaving,” Walker quips at one point in reference to trying to keep up with the drinking habits of the locals during his first visit to the city. Tonight’s powerful performance, on the other hand, will undoubtedly prove difficult to forget, especially for a show delivered in such challenging circumstances.

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