Down from the Hills
Matt Walker’s ‘In Echoes of Dawn’
The Melbourne musician Matt Walker has a backstory almost worthy of folklore. As a young musician playing local clubs in the hills east of Melbourne, Walker was approached one day by the manager of the local rubbish tip, who handed him a filthy, battered 1960s electric lap-steel guitar that had been rescued from a mountain of trash. Walker cleaned up the instrument, restrung it, plugged it in and coaxed from it an unearthly sound. Detuned to a heavy modal drone and amplified to the threshold of distortion, the lap steel transformed old blues songs like Slim Harpo’s ‘I’m a King Bee’ into slide-guitar ragas of mesmeric intensity.
Walker is habitually pegged as a blues musician, although one listen to his 1998 studio debut, I Listen to the Night, makes it clear he had wider horizons in mind. Recorded live in the studio, it captures Walker playing with the brilliant drummer Ashley Davies as a duo, and their free-flowing improvisations sometimes spiral into an orbit far beyond any 12-bar conventions. On the ominous ‘This Broken Sky’ – written by Walker and Broderick Smith – the empty desert vistas of the song are echoed in the hum and buzz of the lap steel. Walker was 25 when he recorded the album, and the haunted, lonesome timbre of his voice matches the desolation of Mance Lipscomb’s ‘Rocks and Gravel’ and Brownie McGhee’s ‘Walk On’, the latter being one of several showcases for his astonishing cross-playing on acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The album turned heads: Guitar Player magazine raved, the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell sent a fan note from Seattle and Walker landed the support slot on a Bob Dylan tour. In 2000 he released Soul Witness, an album of all original material that drafted in new collaborators. The Cruel Sea bassist Ken Gormly and jazz pianist Chris Abrahams fleshed out the sound, and Walker’s gifts as a writer became more evident. ‘Deepest Valley’ and ‘Green and Grey’ are plaintive and deeply felt love songs, and ‘You Put a Spell on Me’ – with lyrics by Dave Graney – is one of several great songs that Walker crafted around the words of others. The album won Walker an ARIA award and he set off on a European tour. Then he seemed to slowly drop from sight.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why the introspective and dissonant bent of Walker’s songs never struck a chord with the Big Day Out crowd, who turned instead to the rootsy good-time vibes of John Butler and Xavier Rudd, surfer dudes who serve up their slide guitars with generous dollops of ecological tub-thumping. Within a few years of winning that ARIA, Walker was back doing bar jobs to feed his family while the dreadlocked Butler became the country’s biggest-selling independent musician and Rudd went global with his cosmic dreamtime schtick. (As you read this, Rudd is touring the US, promoting his new album, Spirit Bird, which he wrote after having “a really profound experience with a red-tailed cockatoo in the Kimberley”.)
So it goes – the music business has never been a meritocracy, and while I’d run a mile from a man who communes with cockatoos, it’s hard to begrudge indie performers like Butler and Rudd a living. Whether Walker was ever entirely comfortable with the attention he earnt is debatable: his onstage demeanour tends towards the sheepish, and his career choices suggest a desire to evade the spotlight. After Soul Witness, he walked away from W Minc, the sterling little Melbourne label that had shepherded his career, and he stopped playing with Davies just as the White Stripes and the Black Keys were demonstrating how bankable the guitar ’n’ drums duo format could be. Left to his own devices, Walker self-released a more conventional rock-trio album, Navigational Skills, but the songwriting quality had slipped. Then in 2005 a reconvened duo album with Davies took democracy a little too far by splitting the singing and writing duties 50-50.
These days you’re more likely to find Walker playing in Archie Roach’s band or in a Johnny Cash tribute show than headlining in his own right, but at the age of 40 he’s released an album, In Echoes of Dawn, that should jolt a few people into remembering what all the fuss was about. Recorded to eight-track tape in his studio in the hills outside Melbourne, where he still lives, it marks another departure: the lap-steel pyrotechnics are gone, replaced by a more expansive country-folk sound crafted almost entirely by Walker himself, playing everything from acoustic guitar to pump organ and mandolin. The almost total absence of drums and electric instruments puts the focus on his voice – which hasn’t lost its youthful yearning quality – and the melodic spell of these ten new songs.
The opener, ‘Fife and Drum’, sets the mood: the song is based on dark, slow-rolling chords played on an antique upright piano, over which Walker sings about preparing to “meet my maker”. Like several of the songs here the meaning is more oblique than literal, but the spectral mood builds beautifully as Jason Bunn’s violin and a swooning steel guitar sweep under the chorus. The title track conveys a similar atmosphere with its floating structure and lyrics that ruminate on the consolations of solitude and enduring love. In the past, Walker’s lyrics have sometimes been plain-spoken to a fault, but here his writing achieves moments of real grace, never more so than on the beautiful, pensive ‘Veil of Night’. Apparently inspired by Schapelle Corby, the song is a series of brief, allusive phrases that build into a mood of contemplative regret before Walker breaks into a wordless harmonised chorus.
It’s not all sombre. On the steady-chooglin’ ‘Back to the Hills’, Walker doffs his cap to Oklahoma’s JJ Cale, a man who shares his resolutely down-home sensibility, and ‘Mama Go Tell Your Children’ weaves mandolin and violin lines around a folkish melody that could have come straight out of an old-timey mountain-music songbook. The album ends on the elegiac ‘Restless Heart’, whose close harmonies evoke the Laurel Canyon sound of early-’70s California.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Walker brought his new four-piece band to Sydney at the end of September: they’d only played two gigs together, and Walker himself hadn’t performed a lot over the past couple of years. But the band, which includes the superb pedal-steel player Shane Reilly and a rhythm section that can double on keyboards and guitars, is already crafting something special out of the atmospherics of these new songs. Introverted as he can be on stage, Walker has a self-possessed air that draws you into his world. Sometimes at the end of a song he’ll open his eyes with the surprised look of someone who’s forgotten he’s performing in front of an audience. Playing a beautiful archtop 1940s acoustic guitar, he reined in his own sound and let the dreamy tones of Reilly’s pedal steel carry the mood. Even the epic ‘Failed to Stop’ – a song whose topical lyrics sound a little clumsy on the album – was transformed into something genuinely spooky.
I half wished Walker would whip out the lap steel for the encore and let loose a few of the old thunderbolts, but that would have shattered the mood. Instead he played a quicksilver solo version of ‘I Listen to the Night’, and then he and Reilly unveiled a freshly written honky-tonk lament, ‘Lost Lover Blues’, that sounded like something you’d swear you once heard Hank Williams sing. Catch this guy soon, before he retreats back to the hills.