Ryley Walker released his third album of psychedelic folk rock, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, earlier this year. The album continues his John Martyn-meets-Van Morrison-meets-The Grateful Dead retro sound with eight new nostalgia-laden tracks. Walker has been touring in support of the album since, and last week he made a stop at DC9.
Ryley Walker live is always a somewhat different experience than Ryley Walker recorded. On the albums, his songs remain focused and concise, short two- to six-minute pieces that for the most part follow the standard verse-chorus-bridge patterns of pop music. Live, though, Walker likes to open them out, picking out themes and pulling them into long instrumental improvisations with his band, often making even the shortest songs ten minutes or longer. When it works, it can be transcendent. When it doesn’t, though, it quickly falls over the line into tediousness.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be Walker’s direction this time. Overly repetitive passages were the mode of the day, with seemingly even the tiniest details being dragged out to the point of exhaustion. To top it off, Walker seemed to be having issues with his guitar – overly long tuning sessions between songs were matched by several stops to tune mid-song while the rest of the band played on. At times, the songs became so lost in the proceedings that it was difficult to remember where things had even started. The set was only saved at the end by a much more straightforward rendition of “Primrose Green,” the title track of the previous album and still one of Walker’s best songs.
At his best, Walker is a good songwriter with a clear potential for greatness. When he’s on, he’s on. An off night in that quest can certainly be forgiven, but it should also be a warning that without more emphasis on the songs, it can be too easy to end up leaving the audience behind.
Fellow Chicago performer Circuit des Yeux, the stage name of singer-songwriter Haley Fohr, opened the show with a haunting solo performance. DC indie-pop musician Louis Weeks also opened, playing songs from the album he is working on currently.