Ryley Walker – Rough Trade NYC – January 26, 2017
Near the beginning of Ryley Walker’s show last night at Rough Trade NYC, he explained/joked/warned that half the price of the admission went toward getting to watch his “mental breakdowns.” The whole night was definitely a more-than-you-bargained-for show, but in altogether good ways. Things got started with J.R. Bohannon, who was referred to throughout the evening as “J.R.,” “John” and “Ancient Ocean.” Bohannon played both solo and accompanied by a mandolin player, using six-string and 12-string guitars as well as what I want to call a Dobro, to create gorgeous, amorphous instrumental exotica. Off-center tunings and doses of dissonance gave an otherworldly feel to the music, the guitars often feeling like ancient Asian equivalents. The middle set went to Sam Kogon who featured mostly material from his recently released Psychic Tears album. The set seemed like a musical time traveler, opening with an updated ’50s doo-wop and bouncing through the decades, offering up distorted ’80s New Wave and ’00s arty indie along the way. Propelled by the rhythm section, Kogon and his band built momentum, carving out their own musical space.
Opening with a long, fantastical jam equal parts airy and aggressive, Walker, backed by a second guitarist and a drummer, wasted no time finding the sweet spot. His playing had an avalanche effect: Each note seemed to chaotically gain more until an exponential torrent of acoustic guitar overwhelmed the room, Walker getting more out of his instrument than he seemed to be putting in. The opening half of the set featured multiple instrumental excursions, expertly centered on tour-tested songs, like “Primrose Green,” which served as an introduction to a furious guitars-and-drums rock-out. At one point, drummer Ryan Jewell moved to tablas, Walker moved to electric guitar, prompting a glorious drone raga with off-planet melodies striking the awestruck audience at oblique angles.
That jam eventually morphed into a free-ranging version of “Sullen Mind,” off last year’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. The second half of the set focused on newer material, in between bouts of brutal hilarity from Walker, which helped the lyric “It’s not very fun being a fun person” pop out to me. He finished the night with a couple of solo acoustic numbers, reminding everyone that beneath the mind-bender guitar jams, is an accomplished songwriter. “Halfwit in Me” closed out things, feeling lush and complex, multiple melodies and structures layered on top of one another to create new patterns of guitar and voice. Much more than the audience had bargained for. —A. Stein | @Neddyo