Concert / Album Review
The Double Door-Chicago, IL
October 13, 2011
By Anthony Kuzminski
Most people will tell you life is a game of chance. I believe life is more or less about a series of questions you say “yes” to. Life changing situations from the discovery of art, friends and even meeting your mate come from more than just being in the right place at the right time but by allowing yourself to be open to new experiences. I agreed to see this singer-songwriter at the Abbey Pub back in 2004 after my friend Billie Jo pretty much threatened me if I didn’t. The evening was more than eye opening but transforming as I knew there and then I would follow Butch Walker for the rest of my days. Over the last seven years, he’s toured every year and released five studio albums. His live shows are like a euphoric drug as you don’t just see yourself in his songs but feel it tingle throughout every bone. On his recent Chicago tour stop at the Double Door, Walker once again decimated the sold-out crowd with a set high on octane but as intimate as a camp fire sing-a-long. Up until now his records took on another shape in concert. His latest The Spade (***1/2) is every bit as revitalizing on record as it is in concert. The sweaty jolt of the club can be felt throughout each of the ten songs and on the Double Door stage he served the record perfectly in a show that featured nine of its ten tracks. Last time around, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart was represented by fewer than five songs. However, with nine songs in a twenty-one song set, it should have bogged the show down, but it didn’t. The Spade is a furious yet operatic look back at his life. In between stories on stage you are drawn closer to the record its textured guitars, dreamy melodies and pleasing rhythm section which perfectly suit the songs in a way that makes them feel like forgotten deep cuts instead of songs barely two months old.
Before he delved into The Spade Butch Walker stepped onto the Double Door stage alone and simply walked up to the microphone where he serenaded the crowd with “Cigarette Lighter Love Song” in an a cappella rendition where the crowd immediately picked up on it before Walker sat behind a piano and brought the song to its climax with ten fingers and a voice that created a windfall of emotion more potent than an orchestra of guitars. The performances of two Sycamore Meadows songs were every bit as affecting; “Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You” and “Here Comes The…” As he pounded the keys and strained his voice, there’s no denying his sincerity, as you believe every lyrics that escapes his mouth. Such an expression of enthusiasm is usually reserved for encores but Walker sets the bar at an astounding height right from the start. “Grant Park”, “Every Monday” and “Race Cars and Goth Rock” were delivered on an acoustic guitar with the crowd singing along to every last word. Their devotion is so severe you are floored Walker isn’t performing on a bigger stage. Conventional wisdom would tell you to hit your audience hard and fast from the get go, but Walker has the ability to find that perfect pacing. Because he was going to be performing nine new songs shortly, he established the intimacy right from the start with a thirty-five minute acoustic set. Even without a band backing him, Walker performs each song like a five piece band and the effect isn’t lost on the audience. Closing out the acoustic set was “Going Back/Going Home” which was once again delivered with the same naked intensity of the first time I heard it back in 2008 (and this time included an all too brief snippet of “Freak of the Week”). This song was a personal triumph for Walker and the first step in the next adventure that has now yielded three superb and first-rate records. When I was interviewing him before Sycamore Meadows had come out, he only gave me bits and pieces about the harrowing previous year he had lived through. He didn’t need to tell me any more than he did and I didn’t go deeper because his eyes and this song told me everything I needed to know.
In a blink of an eye, the stage was full and the solo spotlight gave way to a roadhouse rock fest with “Summer of 89” commencing the festivities. “Summer of 89” is a joyous romp of a song you can’t help but love wholly upon your first listen. The crowd screamed at the top of their lungs, raised their fists to the air and the band marched on in a swagger that at its core was pure ecstasy. “Pretty Melody” showcased the Walker’s capacity to meld Phil Spector and Jeff Lynne into one song. The tempo is distinctively Spector, but the chorus is all Lynne and yet the song feels entirely like any other Butch Walker song a testament to his strength as a songwriter. “She Likes Hair Bands” should be performed in a tongue-in-cheek approach but it’s not, instead of being ironic, it’s idyllic. The song was preceded by Walker talking about Chicago music where he did brief solo snippets of Enuff Z’ Nuff’s “New Thing” from 1989 and Cheap Trick’s “Voices”. “Synthesizers” had Walker leading the crowd with snapping fingers and hand claps that took a detour into “Come on Eileen” before coming back to “Synthesizers”. “Every Single Body Else” with its howling chorus and searing Keith Richards guitars is every bit as significant in concert. The Stones love continues on the Some Girls flavored “Sweethearts”; ditto “The Closest Thing To You I’m Gonna Find” which comes via the spirit of Gram Parsons. I mention these influences not to point out his homage’s but to sow the depth of his musical comprehension. While he may capture the essence of a sound, he infuses his own magic into it. His well of inspiration is boundless as he finds a way to blend, country, rock, pop, blues and r&b into his own intoxicating concoction. The upbeat “Drunk Day”, written for his father, is harrowingly endearing sonically but it cuts through you when you sit back and listen to the lyrics (“Push through the dark like that underground train”) and the slide guitar reminds me of “Sleepwalking” from the 1950’s even though it sounds nothing like it. It breaks hearts in two just by the echo the guitar can make, not even needing lyrics as the song came to a breathtaking finish. Like a master of cinema who grips different styles and genres of filmmaking with ease, Walker is an artist who is always evolving.
Butch Walker has never made the same record twice and this live performance of The Spade was shockingly unbelievable for only being a week into a tour. Recorded live in the studio the same musicians are out on tour and it may be one of the reasons the record comes off so well. The evening’s closer, “Sucker Punch” found Walker in the crowd, on top of the bar and wailing along on his guitar in a magnetizing thirteen-minute version of the song. The song was a full tilt roadhouse rocker with dirty guitars that stretched from Chicago blues halls to the delta to the stadiums the Stones have owned for the last four decades. Walker perfectly emulates the blues bar experience while performing as if he’s in a stadium. He plays every show with the strength and determination of a stadium act yet each show has intimacy rarely seen by anyone else. He’s not condescending, or even off putting in a rock star persona, he’s simply Butch Walker. The Double Door in Chicago was the same high octane celebration that virtually all of his Chicago visits have been over the last seven years, but with a new album in tow to promote and memoirs as well (Drinking with Strangers is released on October 25th), Walker offered a new and fresh perspective into not just the present but the past as well. His last two records were more reflective and embodied the influences he has recently discovered. The Spade is a wonderfully feverish collection of songs with big choruses, bigger guitars and explosive exuberance and the tour in support of it isn’t to be missed. He’s proving to be a triple threat with a book, album and tour, none of which should be missed.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter