Wherein Ryley Walker covers Dave Matthews Band.
The story of Ryley Walker’s latest album passes through the perhaps unlikely career of the Dave Matthews Band. By the late ‘90s, Steve Lillywhite, whose CV already included stops with Peter Gabriel, U2 and Big Country, had produced three albums for Dave Matthews and his crew. The last of those, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets arrived just as the tide was turning from backward hats and cargo shorts toward a kind of second coming for mainstream prog. Matthews and his band trekked into the studio in the wake of both records, eager to explore some darker turns and weirder avenues. What emerged was, in the parlance of the local Delta Chi chapter, a bit of a bummer, and Lillywhite was relieved of his services. Some of the sessions he oversaw were revamped for the 2002 effort Busted Stuff, but the dozen songs that were initially tracked became a kind of Holy Grail, a rebirth of a band that had maybe lived a little too long on its overall pleasantness.
Now, longtime DMB fan Riley Walker has given his take on those pieces, sauntering into a Chicago area studio in the wee hours of 2018 to revisit songs he’d heard long ago on a CD-R. Here is where one might legitimately ask if this some kind of joke. The Converse-wearing music snob in us all probably wants to argue that Walker is to Matthews what John Fahey is to Kenny Loggins: One, possessed with a life-altering genius, the other possessed with an ear for hook and tune who just happened to become omnipresent by standing in the right place at the right time.
That’s not fair, of course. Walker is more than a cult sensation, while Matthews and his group instill a cult-like devotion that doesn’t seem to waver even if their best albums were released at the height of the Clinton era. (A John Mayer/Grateful Dead comparison may be more in order.) This creative marriage compromises none of Walker’s vision: From the beginning, there can be no mistaking that this is art. Joining Walker are Andrew Scott Young (Cicruit de Yeux, Tiger Hatchery) and drummer Ryan Jewell. From the first beat of “Busted Stuff,” you imagine not that you’re listening to DMB but some sort of fantastic jam between Eddie Vedder (leaving behind his most Vedder-ish mannerisms) and The Sea and Cake. There’s an edge there and it cuts from the start.
“Grey Street” has enough of a raised eyebrow that fans of Canterbury prog and Joni Mitchell at her jazziest, most exploratory will get their ya-yas out. (And, yes, fans of Jim O’ Rourke will draw some parallels to his earlier, most jubilant LPs.) “Diggin’ A Ditch,” which earned its share of acclaim when it appeared on Busted Stuff, becomes a maelstrom of Who-ish power, a train ready to veer off the tracks but remaining very firmly on the rails.
“JTR” is an expansive bit of jam that probably sounds the closest to DMB here and it makes you feel a little sentimental for the lads who brought you “Crash into Me.” “Bartender,” meanwhile is full psychodrama, a drunk on his last leg and maybe his last breath, a hymn to nothing that is positively harrowing in its delivery and its appreciation of its source. Said source material is what it is and “Kit Kat Jam” was probably never destined to be the next “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That said, Walker makes it work, transforming the initial composition into something worthy of attention, keeping our ears perked high.
It’s hard to know whether DMD stalwarts familiar with the original sessions will take kindly to this interpretation, but it hardly matters. More than a few of us might start scrambling into that discography, seeking the edgier, more exhilarating moments until we see what Walker has seen in this music all these years.