6. Ryley Walker "The Lillywhite Sessions"
I played trombone in school bands from sixth grade thru high school, strictly playing in a jazz ensemble during my high school years. As is common in smaller ensembles, several times throughout the week the different instrument sections would split up to rehearse separately, dividing ourselves between the small rooms and closets in the band room. As my high school jazz band’s trombone section only ever has three chairs, we would be sent off to a small, cramped supply closet, with barely enough room for us to maneuver our slides in awkward configurations to avoid hitting each other, or our respective music stands. I was third chair my freshman and sophomore years, and the first chair trombonist was a guy named Mike, who liked to utilize this time to regale myself and second-chair Mark with his various takes on whatever the hell was on his mind. On one of these occasions, he suggested I listen to Dave Matthews Band, for reasons that escape me fifteen+ years later.
I can’t be sure, but I think I bought both Dave Matthew Band’s “Busted Stuff” (2002) and Underoath’s “They’re Only Chasing Safety” (2004) at the same time, on a shopping trip with my parents, probably at a Best Buy. My mom immediately asked me what I bought, and I countered with: “umm, this Christian hard rock band you probably would find too loud--they scream a lot--and also this CD Mike suggested I check out.” She asked to see the packaging and started reading the lyrics, immediately disappointed by the consistent drinking references splayed throughout the liner notes. That didn’t deter me, however; I listened to that album for a long time, and started checking out earlier DMB albums from the library after that. I was intrigued by Matthews’ laborious, cigarette-addled drawl, and especially intrigued by “Bartender,” the barn-burner final track on “Busted Stuff,” it quite possibly being the first secular song I’d ever heard with extensive biblical references. I didn’t connect with it, but I understood the allegory: the bartender was this man’s God, the countless drinks the manifestation of his sinful, human nature. It wasn’t until college I came to understand that I was supposed to think DMB was a joke, a jam-band for people my parent’s age but who drank far more than my own parents ever did, a Grateful Dead proxy, or something of that ilk.
The history of the Lillywhite sessions is available to anyone with a simple Google search, but I wasn’t aware of it at all until Walker’s homage. I have to consider his discovery of those lost tracks at whatever young(er) age was akin to how I felt the first time I downloaded and listened to what I will forever consider “Fight Off Your Demons” (2006), the leaked Brand New demos that found their way into digital spaces prior to the release of “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (2006). Hearing a band I adored in the process of making songs was revelatory, something to be analyzed and discussed with my peers, or something to share with casual fans--something secret, underground, for ‘true’ fans only.
I can’t help but find a parallel with Ryan Adam’s full-album take on Taylor Swift’s “1989” (2015), something crafted out of a genuine love for the source material. (Another example I would be remiss in not mentioning would be Japancakes overwhelmingly tepid take on My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” (2007).) However, Adam’s rework of Swift’s album is not one based on years of adoration and fandom, but a knee-jerk reaction to a popular work that he had the appropriate tools to reimagine. In Walker’s take on the Sessions, you can hear years of listening and genuine love for the source material. Walker has even co-opted Matthews’ delightfully lazy lyrical stylings, not mocking in any way, but overwhelmingly respectful, as if understanding that these songs only work when sung with a true heavy-heart weariness. Walker flits between differing stylistic approaches while reinterpreting these cult tracks, always distilling their true natures, crafting these tributes with genuine care and fondness.
This last month, upon discovering Walker’s recording, I’ve reintroduced myself to DMB (and, tangentially, been listening to an obscene amount of John Mayer--the millennial Dave Matthews, if you will) -- and have found his catalogue full of incredible depth and brilliance, perhaps not unlike how I felt in high school, blissfully unaware of what is cool and what is not. Perhaps (and very likely) this is a side-effect of reaching the late stages of early adulthood, coming to terms with the fact that I can absentmindedly listen to a modern jam-band and enjoy the fuck out of it, that sometimes, I don’t need to be challenged, I just want to be entertained. Walker provides those sharpened edges of experimental musicianship, encouraging the hardened listener to take another look, to peek behind the veil of commercial success, to see the craft at play in Dave Matthews’ work. I’m grateful. Bartender, please.