Ever since Bob Dylan and gang electrified the scene back in the 60s, folk rock turned into something different. However, let’s all agree that what we call early 21st century folk rock stalwarts such as Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and even Mumford & Sons, are really different from the days of The Animals, Donovan, and The Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. We’ve gone from electrifying folk by giving it a rockier edge, to mellowing rock songs, mainly through vocal harmony and churchly guitars.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both types of music. However, to listen to Ryley Walker live gave me a spine-tingling sensation of going back in time. At the Rialto Hall for POP Montreal 2016, with just an acoustic guitar and his two touring band members, a stand-up bass (Anton Hatwich) and drummer (Frank Rosaly), Walker created enough noise to resemble a post-rock show. Such is hid brand of folk rock. Indeed, his very appearance is a bit of contradiction, as he comes striding onto stage, rambling a bit about it being Saturday night. His whoops and yeahs are fratboyish. Similarly, even if the opening of ‘The Roundabout’ is an idyllic, British pastoral exploration, Walker remains fully aware of the present lingo. Lyrics like ‘I’d buy you a drink, my credit is quite shit’ and ‘Come to think of it, I think my dad wanted a daughter’ are both modern and relatable. Surround those words with delicate fingerpicked patterns and beachy drum shuffles and you have a concoction of actual 60s style folk rock. Only a bit more charged up.
Following up with ‘Sullen Mind’, another song of his most recent album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, the band darkened the tone. Walker half yipped and spit the chorus ‘I only have a Christian education’. Both Rosaly and Hatwich were on form, the former playing some of the most creative jazz-folk combinations I’ve heard in a long time, with no bars sounding the same. As for Hatwich, he stunningly kept up with the devilish ascents that the song required. Walker seemed like he was on the way to some sort of shoegazing nirvana and with every song, Walker does get there, peeking his head up amongst the clouds above the mountain peak in a thunderous siege of sound.
Finishing their set (handful of songs though all were given an adequate amount of time to build) with ‘Primrose Green’ was apt. On the eponymous album, the track is almost a homage to Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, and even Pentangle. Even the name takes you to a cottage in the English countryside and makes you want to take your sheepdog for a walk in the rain. Translated live though, with Walker’s voice a bit more gruff and weary from the road, that cascading guitar (which I feel should be put in plural) can pretty much hold its own at any rock festival. So yes, Walker’s a bit of a troubadour, but damn can he rock it too. As such, it was an easy decision to name him my personal best show of POP Montreal 2016.