It’s always interesting to find out what kind of music your favorite musicians were listening to as teenagers. Sometimes it’s surprising, like finding out that Chicago-based indie-folk-jazz-rocker Ryley Walker was a huge Dave Matthews Band fan in his mid-teens. Pretty unexpected, until you hear him talking about how the songs grabbed him when he was 15 or so, growing up in the Chicago suburbs where DMB music was ubiquitous in the early 2000s.
Walker is 29 now, has five albums and some EPs under his belt, including one of my favorites of this decade, his 2015 breakout album Primrose Green. Now he’s decided to reveal and revel in his love of Dave Matthews with a track-for-track cover of DMB’s great unreleased album called The Lillywhite Sessions.
The story of that album as I understand it, not being a DMB fan, is that the band went with a different producer than usual, Steve Lillywhite, to record this set of songs in 2000. By the time they’d mostly finished it, though, the band decided they didn’t care for the songs’ darker mood or the production, so they shelved it. But this all coincided with the first great wave of file-sharing (remember Napster?), and the album leaked. It circulated on CDRs mostly among the hardcore fans, and some of the songs became deep-cut cult favorites, rather like The Beatles never-issued single “Hey Bulldog” or the oddball B-side “You Know My Name, Look Up The Number.”
I’ve become a fan of Walker over these past three years, and I don’t find his DMB fandom all that surprising. Walker’s most overt influences as an adult musician are those he gleaned from the Chicago music scene, especially indie rock’s noisier corners, and the artful free jazz of AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But I also hear a lot of psychedelic and jam influences in his music, and DMB fits comfortably in that world of blues-derived jams.
I said I’m not a DMB fan, and that’s an understatement. I doubt I could identify a Matthews song if it bit me. So I’m hearing these tracks cold, as it were, and I like a lot of what I hear. Take the opening track and first single “Busted Stuff” (which went on to become the title track of the album DMB eventually released instead of *Lillywhite*). It’s upbeat and catchy, with a bit of a jazz vibe to it. The second single “Diggin’ A Ditch” has a strong indie-rock vibe with tons of distorted guitar, layers of reverb on the vocals, and a punchy beat full of attitude.
“Grace Is Gone” is a beautifully sad love song with delicate acoustic guitar, a sensitive bass line and subtle percussion, and it makes some of the best use of Walker’s vocal talents that I’ve yet heard. “Kit Kat Jam” is deliciously psychedelic, Walker’s vocals all trebly and pushed back in the mix along with his fingerpicking, the bass and drums driving the song that’s decorated by some kind of chimes, glockenspiel perhaps. “Captain” is hauntingly moody, Walker crooning the angst-ridden lyrics in falsetto.
Jazziest of the tracks is the instrumental “Sweet Up And Down,” a tenor sax floating over the insistent rhythm and distorted electric guitar. The mysterious “Raven” sounds the most like a Ryley Walker song on the album, a fairly straightforward guitar rocker with a mildly R&B vibe.
Two long jams of a bit more than 10 minutes each sound most like what I imagine a DMB song is. “JTR” is a tortured love song with a definite jam-band boogie beat, wordy lyrics, and lots of instrumental goings-on — multi-tracked saxophones, dreamy fretboard wanderings and a funky bass line. It goes into a multi-minute skronking noise-rock/free jazz bit for the entire second half of the track, which will try most listeners’ patience. “Bartender” is similarly long but less pretentious. I really dig the long sax workout in the last three or four minutes. The lyrics are rife with imagery of religion and alcohol; Matthews is known as a hard partier, and drinking comes up a lot in these songs.
There’s nothing in these Lillywhite Sessions that’s going to make me a Dave Matthews fan, but plenty to keep me singing the praises of Ryley Walker. This is Walker’s second release this calendar year, and any year with two Ryley Walker releases is a good year, musically speaking.
(Dead Oceans, 2018)