[2 March 2009]
Seth Walker has never really seemed to know where to lay his musical porkpie hat. Instead, the Austin-based singer/songwriter has shown himself to be something of a roots-music chameleon over the course of his previous five records. Since Walker’s straight-down-the-line-blues debut When It Rains It Pours in 1997, the gifted guitarist has swung to the sounds of swing, laid down some gritty slabs of Southern soul mixed with jazz/gospel and headed over the border into Americana country on 2005’s On the Outside. With 2006’s self-titled long player (reissued by Hyena Records the following year), which signaled a return to the blue side, he finally came full circle on his transient musical path. It was this return to the down-home blues form driven by soulful, rasping vocals and some damn fine gutsy R&B that brought Walker in from the local Austin juke joints and placed him in the top 20 of both the Americana and Living Blues charts before going out on the road with the likes of Johnny Winter, Marcia Ball and Robert Cray in 2008.
Now, a year on, Walker has done what it says on the front of his latest release. The classically trained cellist turned bluesman, brought up on a hippie commune in Altamahaw-Ossipee, North Carolina, took a Leap of Faith and went uptown. In this case, that means heading to Nashville and teaming up with Grammy-Award-winning producer/songwriter Gary Nicholson. Together with Joshua Hoag (bass), Stefano Intelisano (piano/wurlitzer/organ), and Mark Henne (drums), they have conjured up a highly polished sophisticated stew, buffed up by swinging orchestral strings and stabbing horns throughout, that mixes Ray-Charles-style supper club soul (“I Got a Song”) with a buoyant basement blues cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” and the sashaying R&B-meets-pop of, say, Sam Cooke on the excellent single “Rewind”. But to realize what a smooth operator Walker really is, you need look no further than the title-track, a shimmering soul-revue sensation founded on solid blues guitar licks that allows the singer to get his husky groove on.
Sadly, there is a downside to going uptown in search of a wider audience. Occasionally, the songs can be too polished for their own good. Two prime examples can be found snuggled up to each other at the album’s mid-point. “Lay Down (River of Faith)”, a lightweight gospel tune which, bafflingly, gets another outing here after appearing on “On the Outside”, comes on like Paul Simon holding a tent-revival meeting, while Walker’s version of Nick Lowe’s “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” turns into a plodding country shuffle. Thankfully, Leap of Faith is anchored by a trio of butt-kicking numbers culled from his live set that brings the record back from the abyss of the squeaky clean with edgy style and provides the album highlight. “Something Fast” is a lascivious slice of raucous piano boogie ‘n’ blues that conjures up the spirit of Big Joe Turner and has the added bonus of growling vocal accompaniment from R&B roadhouse veteran Delbert McClinton.
Considering the soul/R&B renaissance going on all around us, what with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings getting all funky, soul shouter Eli “Paperboy” Reed coming on like a young Wilson Pickett and James Hunter strolling a similiar soul-beat as our man from Austin (he has covered the British soul singer in the past), Walker’s impressive mix of vintage grooves—or as the singer likes to describe his sound, “a different point of blue”—should take off like a retro-rocket.