Billy Walton Band Live

5 stars (out of 5)

2

It’s a foggy night in London town (Whetstone actually) and I’m sitting backstage at the All Saints Arts Centre, which is a rebranded church hall where The Who (in their High Numbers era) played in 1964.  I’m chatting to the ever-approachable Billy Walton under the eagle eye of Plus One, who’s trying to make sure that I don’t morph into Lynn Barber mid-interview; as if.  This is roughly how  the conversation went.

Billy Walton & Richie Taz (Photo by Allan McKay)

AM         I’ve been following the tour on Facebook this time and it seems like it’s been a bit of a blast.

BW         It’s been great; the turnouts have been wonderful and the shows have been going fantastic and it’s nothing but happiness all round.

AM         The UK’s interesting because it’s always been a good territory for bands like yours hasn’t it?

BW         Yeah, guitar rock’s still alive and rock ‘n’ roll’s still breathing.

AM         It’s been nearly 2 years since we last met up, what’s been happening in that time?

BW         Actually, with my band we’ve been playing gigs and we’ve just recorded a new album called “Crank It Up!” and we’re very excited about it and we’re doing this tour pushing that.  Myself, I’ve been playing with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. I didn’t do the UK tour this time because I was doing my tour and finishing the album and I fly back next Thursday and play with The Jukes again up in Rhode Island, so it’s been a very busy summer, it’s been wonderful.

AM         You mentioned the album, I’ll come back to that in just a minute but I’ve noticed that you’ve become really popular with the Jukes fans as well.

BW         It’s been great, Jukes fans are music lovers and the Jukes are a unique band where nothing’s polished and you never know what’s going to happen and that’s what’s great and the fans dig into that because it’s happening in real time; even we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

AM         As a guitar player in The Jukes, there are some big shoes to fill there when you look at who’s been there in the past.

BW         Yeah Little Steven (van Zandt) and Bobby Bandiera who’s a great, great player but we’re the next evolution of The Jukes, so it’s a cool thing and to hear Southside sing every night is a pleasure.

AM         And Southside seems to be pushing outwards again with The Poor Fools.

BW         He’s always on the go, which we all are.  We all want to do different projects, do different things and evolve musically still, no matter what.

AM         So, tell me about the new album then.

BW         The new album; I’m very proud of it.  It’s a little bit more laid back than “Neon City”; the songwriting is a step up.  I’ve been doing some writing with this guy Randy Friel from Scullville Studios; he’s a good friend of mine, a great piano player and we’ve been hitting it off and writing, we just come with ideas and magic happens.

AM         With the kind of touring schedule that you’ve got with The Jukes and the Billy Walton Band, how do you actually manage to fit in the writing and the recording?

BW         I’m still trying to figure that out.  We did it and after we got the project done, you realise you can’t believe you made the time to do that.  It’s just constantly working and then we’re going to be on to the next album and on to the next Jukes show and the next Billy Walton Band tour, constantly moving, constantly evolving and trying just to get out there and play guitar.

AM         So, have you got a home studio that you use where you put ideas together?

BW         No, I don’t personally because I like being a guitar player and a songwriter instead of an engineer; I know a little bit about it and I have done it in the past to put ideas down but when you’re in a creative mode, you want to capture the creative mode instead of trying to get this take.  You want to stay in that creative mindframe, for me anyway.

AM         You and William (Paris) have obviously been together for a while now and I’ve seen that on stage it’s almost telepathic sometimes, so do you come along with an idea for a song and you work on it together?

BW         Yeah, constantly.  He has ideas he throws at me and I throw them back and they evolve.  We do some jamming in the middle of songs and sometimes that sparks something; every song comes in a different way.  It’s not like it’s cut and dried; okay, next song.

AM         It’s a bit like that that Keith Richards quote that you don’t write songs, they’re just in the air and you have to pick them out.

BW         Well, he had a few.  We were talking earlier about Randy Friel, where the magic was happening.  If you like somebody and you surround yourself with good people, have a good time, pop open a beer, have some fun, do some writing and just let it go then you’re creating instead of just champing at the bit trying to put a song down to get it out there.  That’s what’s different about this album.  Not running out of time, just doing it.

AM         So is most of the material on the new album your own songs?

BW         Yes, it all is; no covers.

AM         That’s great, I’ll look forward to hearing it.  I understand there was some original financing on the project as well.

BW         We did the Kickstarter programme, which is a great, great programme not only for music but for all the arts; for people who want to put movies out or artists.  You’re preselling your album and offering alternatives and people really dig in to it and it’s great for the artist because they don’t always have the money upfront and it gives you the ability to create more instead of being held back financially.

AM         That’s great, thanks for your time Billy.

BW         Thank you.

And that should have been the end of it; get a few photos, have a couple of Buds and enjoy the bands for the rest of the night.  I’ve done a live review of the band already and I’ve seen them a couple of times so there’s no reason to do another review.  Okay, I was wrong; I’ve seen the Billy Walton Band twice doing support sets and tonight they’re headlining which is a whole new ball game.

The support band is The Stone Electric who play a steady opening set which brings to mind early 70s British bands like Free and Stone the Crows or, more currently, The Black Crowes and they feature the powerful voice of Noni Crow.  They get a fairly good response, and the audience are pretty nicely warmed up for the headliners.

The nucleus of BWB is Billy Walton and bass player and co-writer William Paris joined on this tour by drummer Simon Dring and tenor sax player Richie Taz and from the moment they take the stage it’s a bit like being hit by a hurricane.  We’re only halfway through the first song when Plus One makes the observation that Billy’s an incredible guitar player, which is an understatement if anything but I’ll come back to that later.

Billy and William have played together for several years now and could add any other competent musicians to the mix and it would work out pretty well.  This time, however, Simon Dring and particularly Richie Taz (who plays on Billy’s new album), add many different options to the usual BWB power trio set, including the opportunity to throw in a couple of Springsteen covers, “Badlands” and “Rosalita”.  For most bands these would be brave choices but the quality of the playing, particularly the interplay between guitar and tenor sax, is so good that the band produce stunning versions of these songs which have all the power of the E Street Band originals.

The set lasts for a couple of hours and is a mix of material from the new album, older Billy Walton originals and a few covers thrown in.  Although Billy Walton is a great rock player, he’s capable of a lot more besides;  the set tonight includes the live favourite “Soul Song”, the country blues of “Deal with the Devil” and the early Springsteen feel of “The Deal Went Down” (both from the new album) and the band sound tremendous in all of these styles.

What makes BWB so special live isn’t just the outstanding technical ability; the band know how to entertain and to sell the songs as well.  They play with a huge sense of enjoyment and aren’t afraid to inject a bit of humour into the show.  The solos and jams can lead anywhere; how about breaking into the Surfaris’ hit “Wipeout” or the “Peter Gunn” theme during a solo or throwing in a verse from The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” in the middle of “Badlands”?  The band knows how to pace the set, picking the moments for the slower-paced material before building up a head of steam for a barnstorming finish and then it’s all over, leaving the band and the audience completely drained.

Do yourselves a favour and go out and see the Billy Walton Band next time they’re in the UK; I’ll even let you know when it is.  Any band that can make such a glorious noise with an audience of about 150 in a church hall in Whetstone deserves to reach a bigger audience.