One of the chief attributes of a top-notch blues player, using Mississippi Delta or Piedmont fingerstyle guitar, is the ability to maintain a steady bass line while inducing thrills with playfully rollicking, achingly sad or ominously dark melodies on the treble strings. Add in wicked slide licks, and you have almost all the ingredients that are found in monster bluesman, “Little” Toby Walker. He was the cover feature for Acoustic Live in August 2007. In addition to giving the old blues songs a fresh reading with his muscular picking, Toby also has the ability to write songs that tell a funny story. It’s all there in Toby’s newest CD, What You See is What You Get. As an additional incentive for purchasers, printed on the inside of the CD jacket is a URL to a secret web page containing free videos, stories and other historical information.
Sixteen tracks long, the CD is a smorgasbord of Toby Walker delights. We get the usual fingerpicking clinic on some tracks and chills-inducing ear candy on the slide tracks. Coincidentally, like the Garland Jeffreys CD in our previous review, each track on What You See is What You Get was done in one take with no overdubs. Using the information Toby shares on the web page, we’ll explore some of the guitars he plays. Taking each track from first to last, here’s how the album takes shape:
On track one, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” we find Toby using his 1963 Gibson ES-120, the one concession to electric guitar. As he states on that web page: “Whenever I’m in the mood to play electric slide guitar this is the axe I go for. In my opinion there’s simply no comparison to any other guitar out there … this guitar sings regardless of whatever amp I’m going through.” It’s one of the slower numbers, with delicious slide licks precisely placed for dramatic emphasis over the steady 4/4 throb on the bass strings.
On track two, “She’s Into Something,” he’s using the Huss and Dalton MJC acoustic guitar he purchased (and later found out) was owned previously by Mary Chapin Carpenter. This song, about a desirable female (what else?) features a beautiful rhythm set up by a pinch and strum percussive effect. Toby lays some treble melody lines over the top that seem impossible to this listener. There is also some chill-inducing tremolo and fast fret sliding.
“Everything I Want” is a humorous co-write (Jeff Steinberg). The song’s protagonist, an addictive consumer, buys stuff beyond his pocketbook’s capacity: “seems like everything I want is the opposite of what I need.” It’s a sweet Piedmont-style, Mississippi John Hurt-like number, using a 1944 Gibson LG-2 Banner acoustic guitar.
“Glory, Glory,” a particular favorite, has me bouncing up and down in my seat and my foot uncontrollably thumping the floor. It’s a gospel slide rave-up with Toby using that ‘63 Gibson ES-120 again.
“God Moves On the Water” is about the sinking of the Titanic. Toby gives a very tight performance on a 1961 Gibson B-45 12-string acoustic. There’s a video of the Reverend Gary Davis on the web page playing his Gibson B-45, and sitting to his left, could it be? Yes, that’s Pete Seeger.
Toby wrote track six, “Swing Bean” himself. It’s a very rapid-fire, jazzy swing tune that has a Chet Atkins-like feel. Toby uses the Huss and Dalton again on this one.
“Dead Stray Dog” is an ominous, thumping Delta blues, done on the electric Gibson. Toby takes an old song and puts his own stamp on it.
“Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” is another glorious ode to Piedmont fingerstyle guitar done on a 1930 National Steel Triolian resonator guitar.
I’ve heard a lot of versions of track nine, “Statesboro Blues,” over the decades. This one, done on the Gibson 12-string, is a clinic (as usual) on how to play clean on a very tough instrument.
Track 10, another Toby Walker original, “Putting On the Blakes,” is a rapid-fire Piedmont-style number. It has me thinking (and laughing), “Damn Toby,” are you ever gonna stop showing off?” The picking is so fast and intricate, it’s breathtaking.
“Ham Hound Crave” is a standard raunchy blues fingerstyle picker that exclaims,”I’ll be your rocker ‘til your straight chair comes along.” Toby’s natural gift for singing in a sandpaper growl comes in real handy here.
“Roaches and Bedbugs” is Toby’s adaptation of a Furry Lewis song. This tasty slide number makes good use of his humorous side with, “the roaches and the bedbugs, playin’ a little game of ball / the score was 20 to nothin’, the roaches were ahead…”
“Highway,” is a description of various chapters following Toby’s taking to the road as a youngster. It’s an exciting, fast-driving fingerpicking opus. For anyone contemplating becoming a guitar player, this one will either be an inspiration or very daunting cautionary note.
“Put Something Stupid On the Tube” was co-written with Tom Griffith. It’s a very funny, satirical look at how TV watching is used as an escape: “The big boss man drove me half insane / there’s nothing left to do but to drain my brain.”
“Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied” is immediately recognizable as flat-out Mississippi John Hurt, written by the man himself. Toby does it proud, the picking clean and bouncy, with double-pinched notes and turnarounds galore.
The CD finishes up with “Custard Pie,” a slide number attributed to Sonny Terry, with a percussive bass line. Its insistent throb puts me in mind of Bo Diddley. If this were the last encore in a live performance, the audience would be sent home happy.
For purchasers, there are three additional songs available for download on the secret web page. “I Was Gone” chronicles the two years Toby spent hitch-hiking around the country back in the mid ‘70s. “Sadie Mae” is one of his favorite numbers to perform. An alternate version of “Ham Hound Crave” has been doctored to sound like an old record the way his great-great-grandfather, bluesman Willie Walker, would have done it.
We’ve always been gobsmacked by the sheer physical exploits of Toby Walker on guitar. For a listener who’s into the blues, it can’t get much better. This CD should be in the collection of anyone who loves the genre (or anyone who just loves good music).