Chicago, IL (7-31-08 and 8/2/08)
By Anthony Kuzminski
Over the course of the last decade, Walker has worn many hats: band leader of the Marvelous 3, an in-demand producer for the likes of Bowling For Soup (“1985”), Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, American Hi-Fi, and Pink (who makes an appearance on Walker’s new record on the track “The Best Of…”) and finally as a solo artist. While he’s always viewed his individual work as his top priority, it doesn’t hurt that he receives paychecks for his producing duties. Back in 2002, Walker released his acclaimed debut solo disc, Left of Self-Centered and while Arista failed to promote it, it made an impression on everyone who heard it for its larger than life and buoyant production. He was hand picked by Avril Lavigne to produce a few key singles from her second album, including “My Happy Ending” and “Don’t Tell Me”, both of which shot to the top of the charts. Since then he’s balanced his own career with occasional producing gigs. In the months following the fire, he received a number of requests for producing but turned every single one of them down. “I’ve been too concerned with what was flowing from me during this time and had to put myself and my songs fist”. Without the standard interruptions in his busy schedule, Walker is laboring over these pensive and personal songs. Fortunately or unfortunately, he has called just about every major label “home” over the course of his career. Sycamore Meadows has yet to find a home and whether it will be a major label release or an independent venture has yet to be determined. When I asked him what style the album would follow, he pondered for a very brief moment and out of his mouth came one salient word; “introspective”. As he continued, he told me “I’m letting the lyrics shine this time and keeping them in the forefront and letting the music flow organically”. There was a bittersweet story in his eyes as he told me this, but he seemed rejuvenated, alive and well with a clear eye on the future instead of wallowing in the past. All of the songs were birthed from the chaos, confusion and calamity in the months following this tragedy. When Walker mines his psyche is when his best work flows from him. Letters is a break-up record on par with Peter Gabriel’s Up, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, with a slight dose of pop thrown in for good measure. Most consider it to be his most honest, truthful and revealing work…until now.
After the intense beginning, our conversation veered into more laid back channels as we discussed what he was listening to these days and we both joked how we needed iTunes in front of us to fully acknowledge everything out there. “But I have been listening to the new My Morning Jacket album a lot.” he tells me. We discussed his plans for Chicago and he lit up, “My second favorite city…after my home Atlanta”. While I was unable to catch his Lollapalooza show, I was fortunate to catch two intimate and concentrated shows featuring a lean and mean Walker, whose hunger is as raucous as it is righteous on the concert stage. Whether it’s an arena or a bar, Walker never disappoints, effortlessly segueing from one to the other. He has an indelible, genuine and authentic stamp of aura around him. When you watch him perform, you feel as if you’ve known him intimately for years. While my time with him backstage was short, I slowly realized that over the course of two shows that my time with him there was only part one of the interview, as parts two and three occurred during his solemn one-man show at Angels and Kings and (two-nights later) the full band performance at the Cubby Bear nightclub, which proved to be wildly exuberant.
Angels and Kings featured Walker solo, where he drew back the curtain in ways I’ve never seen before. Arriving on stage at 10:15, he was surrounded by a keyboard, two acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, a bass, a few amps and a wireless microphone. He then proceeded to use all of them on the opening number, “Going Back”, a confessional composition including the lyrics “I’m not happy with myself these days”, which contained the first of many allusions to the aforementioned fire. He would play each instrument until the mixer at the soundboard copied it, and by the end, he had a fully mixed and completed track. Throughout the rest of the 95-minute show, he shifted from the acoustic to electric guitar, keyboard to piano and even hopped on the bar to sing a long finale of “When Canyons Ruled the World”. The die-hards in attendance welcomed the cult renderings of “Mixtape”, “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, “Joan” and a most welcomed “Grant Park” from his Marvelous 3 days. Of his classics, “Don’t Move” was even more affecting and searing as Walker belted the lyrics as a man possessed. This one song I always underestimate, but in concert it sizzles with soul. Walker’s vocal acrobatics help the song soar in ways one never imagined. While the crowd wailed on these classics, they were ever attentive for the soul searching half dozen new songs he showcased. “Ships In A Bottle” had some deeply philosophical lyrics while the “Past Your Place” and “Summer Scarves” found a contrast of reflective on the former and epic on the latter. Both reminded me of Springsteen at his best (think “Brilliant Disguise” and “Jungleland”) but with Walker’s melodic touch in widescreen mode. The exuberant sing-a-long was represented on the joyful and poppy “Song For The Metalheads”. On “Hardest Thing We’ve Ever Known”, performed at the front of the club on piano, Walker delivered his most gut wrenching ballad ever. There was a tinge of rage in the lyrics and you could feel the intensity drip off the stage like coolant from an air conditioner. Each performance built the evening’s intensity, and here the bubble burst in spectacular emotive fashion.
Two-nights later, Walker could be found on the near north side of the city in a much different atmosphere. In a stark contrast to the enlightening solo showcase, the Cubby Bear gig featured his band as they unleashed pure melodic energy to the capacity crowd. Yet another two new songs were aired, “Kids” and “Vessels”. If the strength of the material performed at the Thursday show wasn’t enough, these latter two are among the best damn compositions Walker has penned to date. Both are potential singles with Pete Townsend riffs and Beatlesesque melodies. There was a distinctive contrast between the two performances, but the quality of the songs was consistently staggering. Whatever internal transformation Walker has gone through in the last year is pouring out of him with nary a pause for breath or reflection. Despite his penchant for beautiful visceral melodies, this is a changed man. He has always ventured deep into the tortured consciousness, but this is different. Even his well known songs were delivered with a new outlook. The ballads (“Stateline” and “Only Love”) shared a sincere and inner light into his soul, while the rockers (“Uncomfortably Numb” and the medley of “Laid/Taste of Red”) embraced an arena-rock muscle tone he executes so meticulously regardless of the crowd size. The mean guitar lick of “Hot Girls in Good Moods” sent the crowd into a frenzy as the band slammed this one out of the park. Walker’s band was intricate and inspired, with the dexterity of a band that has hundreds of performances behind them. They were fast and fluid in their execution. If you’ve never seen him live before and need a fix before he heads out on his next tour, check out his sprawling live DVD, Leavin’ The Game On Luckie Street and you’ll see for yourself.
From the plaintive strains of his guitar on one night, to the in-your-face slap of molten voltage two nights later, Butch Walker professed a stark declaration of desires that go beyond words. He seems to enter a dreamy private realm, except he’s inviting his listeners along for the ride. The short time I spent with him backstage was merely a prelude to my full interview, where he delved deeper and revealed himself to me and the sold-out crowds each night. Walker is as confident as he’s ever been in his craft and it shows. Over the course of these few performances, I witnessed a man whose hunger, determination and drive is as strong as ever. If the preview of the songs from the new album aired in Chicago is any indication, this album will prove to be an illuminating, insightful and poignant excursion through Walker’s consciousness. The depth of the lyrics of Sycamore Meadows (something never lacking from Walker and always a strength of his) takes on new dimensions as the songs paint pictures of renewal and resurrection. Sycamore Meadows may prove to be his most transcendently spiritual and revealing. There was luminosity to the acute emotions he exuded on stage over these two performances proving once again to be a remarkable live performer. If this mini preview is any indication, we’ll be looking at a soul-baring and concentrated album that may prove to be a confessional tour de force epic.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
All Pictures Courtesy of Butch Walker's MySpace Page
"Ships In A Bottle" Demo
"Here Comes The Heartache"