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little toby walker: live at the bottleneck
powerhouse records (uk) cat #: pr0406 review by michael cala
October 17, 2008

from the first few bars of the traditional blues and lead track, “i know you rider,” it’s clear that toby walker is a master of the blues guitar’s many regional american dialects. the 15 tracks on

little toby walker: live at the bottleneck were recorded without post-

production “sweetening” at the famed kent, england blues club in february 2004. representing more than an hour of
intricately textured acoustic blues guitar playing, nearly half are selfcomposed, while the remainder reflect styles and performers from the first third of the 20th century. little toby walker’s biography lists his birthplace and current address as long island, new york; however, he’s spent time in the company of numerous southern blues artists. therefore, it’s no surprise that walker’s guitar playing echoes styles from west texas and mississippi north to the virginia piedmont; from intricately detailed fingerpicking to bottle slide playing (and maybe lap-steel on one tune -- “weak willed and easily led”). there’s only one guitar at work here, though it sounds like several. clearly, walker’s technical musical prowess may surpass even that of the blues greats heard in his work. on “matchbox blues,” walker’s unique arrangement preserves the stone-jumping arpeggios and jazzy syncopations of 1920s texas bluesman blind lemon jefferson. and no matter how complex the melody line, walker never drops the pounding alternating bass. on “hack saw rag/cincinnati flow rag,” co-written by reverend gary davis, walker shifts gears with the bellclear fingerstyle playing associated with great piedmont-style guitar players blind boy fuller, etta baker, and contemporary masters like roy book binder. the overall ragtime feel of many of the tunes tells us blind blake may be a walker favorite, just as mississippi blues/jazz giant big bill broonzy calls out from several tunes including “good liquor.” one of the joys of listening to “thinking” bluesmen like toby walker – unlike talented automatons who reproduce tunes verbatim -- is that they rarely take themselves seriously; in this, string virtuoso david bromberg comes immediately to mind. like bromberg, walker is blessed with a sense of humor that he displays most notably on the comic “weak willed and easily led,” and in patter between songs. while his virtuosity and wry humor do, indeed, recall david bromberg, toby walker’s overly earnest vocal “bluesifying” on tunes like his own “son of a mule skinner man,” suggests the sometimes-over-the-top vocal work of john hammond, jr., and therein lies the one sore spot for this reviewer. maybe we’ve spent one too many nights in under-lit bars listening to middle aged white men playing national resophonics and batting out “dust my broom” for the umpteenth time, but there’s something

little toby walker: live at the bottleneck/review by michael cala

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unappealing about the sound of someone forcing himself to “sound bluesy” when he doesn’t quite have the native equipment. even though it’s hard to take even bromberg’s best performed songs on an emotionally serious level since there’s always a hint of the put-on (even the superbly arranged “statesboro blues” has some subtle bromberg laughs tacked on; “send me to the electric chair” is a positive yuk-fest), nevertheless bromberg’s voice is a genuinely bluesy instrument ( “dehlia” and “kaatskill serenade” are superb examples of this.). in contrast, toby walker’s voice is merely average. by trying as hard as he does, his overworked vocals convey artifice instead of emotion. this is why the comic songs work best; he’s releasing a naturalness lacking in the more earnest tunes. if this consummate musician were to relax a bit, he might be able to match his vocals to his superb instrumental skills. but voice becomes a relatively minor cavil when listening to the stunning guitar work. as an amateur lapslide player, i’ve already listened to this cd a dozen or more times, idly wondering just how many fingers little toby walker possesses. if there are only ten, he’s got the best blues hands in the business. michael cala

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