Ryley Walker's return to Manchester, this time with a full band, was eagerly anticipated by those who witnessed his sold out solo show at Gullivers earlier in the year. He didn't disappoint with an intense set of songs, improvised in parts, that showed a rare unique talent. Support came from a seven-song stripped down set from Nev Cottee.
Fresh from his delayed launch show for his excellent Strange News From The Sun album earlier in the week, Manchester's Nev Cottee opened proceedings accompanied by two of his band - Chris and Rod. In the more acoustic setting the songs reveal the beauty in Nev's songwriting, a fragility, a longing wistful melancholic feeling running through them that's perfect for the occasion.
He starts the set with three songs from his debut album Stations - the title track, Close Your Eyes and Oslo in homage to Ryley's Norwegian drummer. On these song, his voice recalls in parts the emotional lilt that characterises Richard Hawley's best work, particular on the earlier material and with Chris and Rod providing backing vocals as well as pedal steel and more traditional Rickenbacker and Telecaster guitar that create the perfect framework for the emotional content of his songs.
The last four songs of his set come from Strange News. Annie is a reflective look back at a failed relationship whilst Follow The Sun and the recollection of his childhood When I Was Young confirm his ability to create beautiful heartfelt songs that captivate the Soup Kitchen crowd who show him the silence and respect he deserves. He closes with If I Could Tell You, resplendent with vocal harmonies and the trio of guitars creating a sound that wouldn't be out of place in the deep south of America. It's a perfect opener for what's to come.
Ryley's live set earlier in the year had us all salivating over a unique talent. Whilst he has songs (two albums worth and a third in the process of being recorded as evidenced by a new song tonight), they act only as markers, as route points for what happens in the live shows. They spend time setting up the stage, and then ten minutes before their scheduled stage time after a line check, Ryley starts playing. His band join in slowly at first as the piece builds with keys, drums, double bass and a second guitar. After about nine minutes, Ryley counts into what we recognise as Primrose Green. The album version comes in at just over four minutes - tonight it's close to seventeen.
"We flew across the ocean to fucking boogie man, so let's hang loose on this one" cracks Ryley as the familiar intro to On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee starts up. It evolves into a ten minute sonic journey that only in parts returns to its source. Whilst this could be seen as self-indulgence, particularly as most of the crowd can't actually see him or the band as they're all-seated, the crowd are mostly held in an awe-struck reverence. He jokes that he should play the hits as he introduces Sullen Mind, a new song that should appear on his third album, and it's an intense, fierce and combative as what's gone before it. Affable and charming between songs, Ryley is completely and utterly immersed in the music when he's playing, oblivious to everything other than his band mates. Whilst it's almost impossible to tell how it'll translate into a recorded version, it shows that there's no way he's going to lighten up and lose what makes him stand out from every single artist around.
His band mates leave the stage for a solo slot, at which he laughs that he's not going to go all pretentious with, which sees him go back to his debut All Kinds Of You for Clear The Sky and a cover of Tim Hardin's If I Were A Carpenter, on which he manages to simultaneously make his mark and remain faithful to the original.
The band come back on to the stage for two final songs. Like the others before them, the recorded versions of Summer Dress and Funny Thing She Said are just pointers to how the songs evolve in the live environment. There's an intuition between the five of them that allows their improvisational spirit to shine through. There's a six minute interlude at the start of Funny Thing She Said with all sorts of noises created by a set of keys being rattled against the keyboard, drumsticks being rubbed along the side of cymbals as if playing a violin and Ryley using a coin to pluck guitar strings to within an inch of their life before it drops into a section where a simple drumbeat and a sparse plucked acoustic are all that are needed to create the atmosphere for the song. It then careers off at another tangent before coming to a spectacular conclusion.
Ryley would probably play all night, such is the infectious energy and love of performance that's so clearly evident, but we're constrained by the Soup Kitchen curfew. He says at one point that there's a connection between his hometown of Chicago and Manchester and the audience response shows it goes further than the endless rain and a shared love of Mark E Smith who he namechecks.
In a world where music is being treated more and more like a disposable commodity, Ryley Walker is a one-off, destined to be loved by those that stumble across him, a real hark back to the days when music was simply about that, the joy of sharing in the creation of something in a moment and time. In a probably inappropriate conversation after the show, someone comes up with the thought that, like Jeff Buckley, he'd get seen as a visionary and eulogised if he left this world, yet whilst he's of this world he's destined to be a cult genius.
Nev Cottee's website can be found here. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.