Concert Review: Ryley Walker at Songbyrd

mage Courtesy of Dean Robbins

By Dean Robbins

Ryley Walker, whose music ranges from seventies-inflected folk to experimental jazz, is certainly prolific. In 2021 alone, he released three albums and an EP. His main release of the year, Course in Fable, a unique mix of folk and prog rock, formed the backbone of his performance at Songbyrd Music House near Union Market. Songbyrd, which recently moved into a new, larger space, has a nondescript “insert vibe here” appearance, which is perfect for the venue’s varied lineup. Walker paced around the venue before the show preparing, drinking, and interacting with audience members. For a musician with over 120,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and songs with millions of listens, the concert felt surprisingly like a local show—for better or for worse. 

Walker was originally supposed to share a bill with noise rock duo TONSTARTSSBANDHT, who unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19. Walker was instead supported by avant-garde DC jazz trio We Were Here Before. The trio reminded me greatly of Colin Stetson, whose jazz has a creepy, horror movie vibe to it. We Were Here Before seemed to become increasingly “possessed” by the creaky, unsettling vibes of their improvisations. It is an acquired taste but it is especially effective for those who can vibe with it. They are the kind of band that one uneasily settles into, like sitting in a coffee shop slowly sinking into the bowels of a Chthonic monster. In any case, the 40-minute opener sure woke the audience up.

Walker opened his set with the first track on Course in Fable, “Striking Down Your Big Premiere.” Walker and his three bandmates got off to a bit of a rough start, with a technical difficulty involving guitarist Bill McKay. The lyrics are mysterious and poetic with lines such as, “If I could squeeze cents to pounds/Conversion rates buried in sound.” The song is great even if the performance was a little shaggy. The set was a collection of hits such as “The Halfwit in Me” and “The Roundabout” from Walker’s 2016 breakout album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. One detour was a cover of “Of Course” from the 1990 Jane’s Addiction album Ritual de lo Habitual with McKay on lead vocals, confident due to his own successful solo career. 

Early on in the show, Walker remarked that the tour van he had been living in with his band was not doing too well. The AC was broken, the windows would not roll down, and the speedometer would not register the speed. The band looked exhausted and the performance seemed to suffer a bit because of that. Walker is an incredible guitarist, and his bandmates are all fully capable musicians. However, for a band that thrives on improvisation and not sticking to a routine, the tiredness was even more obvious. The band turned in a respectable effort in performance, but it is certainly not one of their best. 
The one weird thing about seeing Walker in-person is that his music is very different live as opposed to recorded. His earlier albums, like Golden Sings That Have Been Sung or Primrose Green, could be played by your grandparents on a Sunday; at least, if your grandparents grew up in a city in the sixties. Songs like “The Roundabout” are rather relaxing and laid-back. Walker live is much harder, faster, and more intense. This makes his live performances hard to recommend for fans of his music. I could see someone loving his recorded music and hating his live performances, or vice versa. If you like laid-back folk/jazz fusion, recorded Walker is the way to go. If you like prog-rock/jazz/ fusion, live is the way to go.

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