Somehow, I had never heard of “Little” Toby Walker before his new CD arrived in my mailbox. When I opened the envelope, though, I was delighted to find out that Walker had been led to me by a mutual friend, Mr. Denis Turbide, and I decided to give the disc my utmost attention. I could surmise from the packaging that the man has good taste in guitars: there are a couple of handsome Huss & Dalton models featured, one on the cover and one on the inside panel, and Walker indeed plays an H&D OM, along with a couple of National guitars, on these recordings. It was also readily apparent from the album title (and the bound-and-gagged cover portrait) that Walker has a sense of humor about himself, which immediately endeared me to him… a lot of us young guitar-slingers definitely take ourselves way too seriously! All of this, combined with a few familiar rags and fingerstyle-guitar showpieces peppered into the tracklist, led me to assume that Mr. Walker probably knows his way around 6 strings… and though that assumption proved correct, my opinions regarding this disc are mixed.
Walker is a seasoned bluesman who has played all over the world, and Speechless… for once is his first wholly instrumental release. It’s an eclectic collection of classic ragtime, blues and popular songs, several featuring original arrangements by Walker. Walker’s playing is clean and confident throughout, as he displays a nice range of fingerstyle techniques, as well as some very unique and tantalizing song choices.
The disc has its share of hot, bluesy moments, including album opener “Sweet Georgia Brown”, third track “Sligo Creek/Chesapeake” and a very entertaining romp through Freddie King’s “Hideaway”. Closer “El Whipping Post”, Walker’s energetic arrangement of the Greg Allman tune, is played with no small amount of soul, and it’s probably my favorite cut from the CD.
Toby Walker – “El Whipping Post”
I feel that the collection starts to drag around the halfway point, with Walker trying his hand at some well-worn ragtime arrangements from the Kicking Mule era. His performances of “The Entertainer” (Scott Joplin, arr. Paul Lomax) “Dallas Rag” (Dallas String Band, arr. David Laibman) and “Smokey Mokes” (Abe Holzmann, arr. Ton Van Bergeyk) are all note-perfect, but lack any kind of real excitement or personal touch from Walker. On a disc with such a wide scope of material, these choices strike me as very safe, especially for someone with Walker’s level of recording and performing experience, and I think it was a sequencing miscalculation to have them one after another, right in the middle of the disc.
The potential wildcard from this mid-album group is Guy Van Duser’s arrangement of “Stars And Stripes Forever”. This selection might strike some folks as a little corny, and even though Walker easily musters the chops to turn in a very respectable performance of this (quite difficult) piece of music, I feel that there is really only one man who ever had the charisma to really, REALLY pull this off… check out Chet Atkin’s show-stopping version of the same arrangment.
The two best known and probably most beloved tunes on this disc, particularly for the guitar-uninitiated, are the Lennon/McCartney classic “Norwegian Wood” and the Arlen/Harburg standard “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. Walker’s arrangement of the former is exciting and nuanced, and the guitarist explores the harmonic textures in the song to great effect, even employing some lovely artificial harmonics on the melody line. This is the Walker I want to hear more of, the player who effortlessly breathes new life into a tune that everyone knows by heart… on my first pass through this CD, “Wood” was the track the really made me stand up and take notice.
Toby Walker – “Norwegian Wood”
“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, however, is something of a snooze. Walker alone can’t shoulder the blame for this one, it’s just one of those compositions that really doesn’t soar on the solo acoustic guitar. The arrangement (not Walker’s, btw) is very tidy and somewhat academic, and the guitarist can’t seem to break out, or summon enough emotion to carry the melody. The reading is too straight, and Walker would have done well to jazz this one up a bit… would he have added a few subtle surprises, like he did with the aforementioned Beatles tune, the performance might not come off so much like elevator music.
Toby Walker is an expert acoustic guitarist, and Speechless… for once has its share of great moments. I’m hoping to catch him the next time he is up here in the rustbelt, my research tells me he puts on quite a show.