Billy Walton Band: Robin 2, Bilston; The Flowerpot, Derby 27 and 28 January 2016


Gary Hudson continues his musings with a New Jersey angle, with a report on the flowering of one of the Garden State’s most exciting guitar players on successive nights in the English Midlands.

The first time I saw the Billy Walton Band was in a bar in Philadelphia nine years ago. They were a trio. The last time I saw them before their current UK tour was in a new 500-capacity venue, the House of Independents, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The line-up included dazzlingly good keyboards and horn players.

It’s a weird equation but doubling the number in the band has almost infinitely increased their musical range. They are simply the most dynamic and versatile group of rock musicians I have seen in small venues. It offends me on a visceral level that they are not filling arenas.

That first time in Philly I remember thinking that the guitar player was prodigiously, almost inhumanly, fast. Sweeping pentatonic scales, and a few tricks to boot, enshrined Mr Walton in the pantheon of damn fine electric blues men. But the shows I witnessed on successive nights by the larger Billy Walton Band confirmed to me that Parliament should be lobbied forthwith to make it compulsory to see Billy Walton play whenever he’s within a hundred miles of your home.

If that sounds unreasonable try telling it to the couple who faced a six-hour return journey to Fife in  Scotland after the Derby show or the chap in the Joe Bonamassa  T-shirt, who turned out to be the promoter and confided that, while he didn’t like to compare guitar players, Billy Walton is right up there with the very best. And, he said, he puts on a fantastic show.

Tell me about it! I saw them at the Robin and was so impressed by the musicianship and sheer exuberance  of the band I determined to see them the next night wherever they were playing – and drag as many people as possible along with me. My companions were not disappointed.

And yet the Robin was so sparsely populated that when Walton slipped off his Stratocaster and led trombonist Matt Fischer and sax man Tom Petracarro into the audience it was a relief that someone  was filling a little of the empty space on the floor. The Flowerpot, a smaller venue with a bigger crowd, was busier and more welcoming but still could have accommodated a coach load or two.

The professionalism that drives under-rewarded musicians to deliver an exhausting yet flawless show every night amazes those of us who have the good sense to be there. Keyboard player Sam Sherman cannot keep the smile from his face as he trades blues licks with Walton, and drummer Johnny D’Angelo cheerfully and energetically drives the whole machine into merrily uncharted waters.

Walton’s long-time collaborator William Paris is more than a bass player. He’s part ringmaster, part cheerleader and salesman in chief, not only promoting the merch from the stage but taking your money at the end of the show. Such are the economics of touring at this level. And yet only the vicissitudes of the music business have prevented Billy Walton from being another Bonamassa at the very least. His finesse on the instrument more than compares in tone, feel and – let’s face it – speed, and his songs are every bit as memorable.

The announcer at the start of their new Live in the UK CD declares that they are from Asbury Park, New Jersey, “home of great ice creams”. And that’s almost not a joke, because It doesn’t matter that they are from the same place as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They are musically distinct even though their own publicity points out that the seaside town’s most famous export is an old-school rock and soul band fronted by a singer songwriter whereas this is a rock and soul band fronted by a guitar hero.

And while the power trio I saw in the City of Brotherly Love all those years ago owed a little too much to the hippy ethos of Cream and Hendrix, this six-piece outfit is capable of anything in the rock/blues/jazz idiom and proves it night after night.

They do so with enthusiasm and exuberance looking like the only place they want be on a mid-week midwinter night is in a half-empty room in Bilston or Derby.

They have more gears than a Formula One car and change between them as effortlessly as if Stirling Moss himself were at the wheel.

At the Flowerpot a medley toward the end of the set incorporated tributes to David Bowie and Glenn Frey. So it included among other things Ziggy Stardust, Under Pressure, All the Young Dudes, and Life in the Fast Lane, alongside Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4, Led Zep’s Kashmir, Werewolves of London, a touch of Sabbath, the Motown hit My Girl, and the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right to Party. Challenge any musician to work out how that lot could fit together. They did it seamlessly.

The band’s leader admits to throwing in new numbers to keep them on their toes. Sherman confessed afterwards: “I’ve been in this band two and a half years and I’ve never played Fight For Your Right before. I’ve no idea where that came from.”

Remember the name and go see him whenever he is within a hundred miles of your home. It’s the law. Tattoo it on the insides of your eyelids so you will remember it as you fall asleep, or if that’s not practical just remember the 70s TV series – that rather nauseating idyll of rural American life. There wasn’t a Billy Walton in The Waltons as far as I can recall. That’s because he was the one who spent all day and night in his bedroom practising guitar. Good night, John-Boy. And before you go to sleep, Let It Rock.

Previous article
Next article

More From Author


Popular Posts

Latest Gig Reviews

Latest Music Reviews


Band Of The Day