I’ve been a big fan of Seth Walker for more than a decade now, since first hearing his 2007 CD, Seth Walker. Born in North Carolina in 1972 and currently based in Nashville, Walker is a gifted roots and blues singer/guitarist whose stylistic approach bridges blues, and jazz, Americana and soul, but with his own unique twist.
After beginning the study of the cello at the ripe old age of 3 (his parents are both classically-trained musicians and proponents of the Suzuki method), Walker’s teen years found him gravitating toward the blues, listening to folks like B.B. King, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker and others. He also has an interest in fine art, having studied it at East Carolina University. In fact, the cover of this collection features an interesting, impressionistic self-portrait by Walker.
Are You Open? is Walker’s tenth studio album, and it’s just filled with tasty, atmospheric groove, hypnotic bass lines, and some wonderfully understated guitar throughout!! Produced by Jano Rix of the Wood Brothers, this is, for me, his most satisfying effort yet, an impressive feat given how great his other albums have been. Feeling at times like an appealing mashup of Rick Holmstom’s Hydraulic Groove and Paul Simon’s Graceland, with more than a little 70s soul thrown in for good measure, Are You Open? finds Walker really hitting his stride as both a songwriter and performer. His time on the road – across the U.S. and throughout Europe, with a recent stop in Cuba – has clearly provided him with an expansive array of spices from which to choose, and, like an experienced chef, he’s assembled some tasty entrees for our listening pleasure.
Producer Jano Rix provided drums, percussion, keyboards and vocals. Myles Weeks contributed bass and background vocals, while Steve Mackey, Lindsay Greene, and Chris Wood also provided bass. Matt Glassmeyer added horns, Jon Paul Ruggieri added guitars and pedal steel, Ben Teters provided drums and vocals, Stefan Intelisano played keys and accordion, and Tommy Perkinson added background vocals.
My reference to Holmstrom’s Hydraulic Groove came well before I learned that Walker started these songs with a groove before working up the lyrics, somewhat counter to the way he has typically approached his songwriting. But it certainly makes perfect sense. These 10 tracks are dripping with infectious, soulful grooves and interesting rhythms, supported by tasty, understated performances by all concerned. Much of this collection was recorded at Walker’s home studio, providing him with the freedom to respond to inspiration as it came, without being hamstrung by outside engineers or studio fees. Half of the tracks are credited solely to Walker, while others have him collaborating with either Ben Teters, Gary Nicholson, Dave Pahanish, Oliver Wood, or Myles Weeks.
Some of these tracks, including the opener “Giving it All Away,” are built around a single chord vamp and strong bass line, allowing for some extended improvisation and wonderfully atmospheric instrumentation to be laid over the groove and to support Walker’s vocals.
“Inside” is another groove-heavy track, inspired by Walker’s recent visit to Havana, and originally sketched-out on his iPhone using a voice memo (glad to know that I’m not the only one who does that)! It’s got some great guitar work weaving in and out of a swirling organ, all of which provide a haunting foundation for Walker’s vocals. A really great track!
The bouncy, infectious reggae feel of “All I Need to Know” distinguishes itself from the rest of the album, while the sweet vulnerability and hopefulness of the stripped-down title track, “Are You Open,” showcase the simple, understated elegance of Walker’s skill as both a songwriter and vocalist.
Walker took a political left turn with the track, “No More Will I,” an openly critical response to the Trump presidency and the rise of right-wing extremism. It’s clearly a very personal tune, and demonstrates his unwillingness to remain silent – and, presumably complicit – in the face of rising extremism. This is just one more example of a trend I’ve seen over the last year or so, with artists feeling compelled to take a stand against intolerance. “I’d never really written a topical song like this before,” Walker told Billboard about the track, which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Gary Nicholson. “But thinking about the landscape here, socially, it got to a breaking point for me. I could not stand idle watching this – just the fear-mongering and the blatant racism going on, right in our back yards. I just… looked at it going, ‘Man, this is actually happening…’ And our president’s rhetoric is setting a tone for all this.” I’m sure this will be off-putting to a portion of his audience, but I for one welcome the trend, remembering how, in the 60s and 70s, we actually appreciated it when our musical heroes were vocal against injustice.
Musically, “Hard Road” calls to mind “Under African Skies” from Paul Simon’s magnificent Graceland album, but while Walker may have taken inspiration from Simon, he’s clearly made his own statement here, and has done so very nicely.
“No Bird” is without a doubt the funkiest tune on this collection, and would not be at all out of place in a soul playlist from the 70s. The deliciously arrangement of acoustic guitar and bass that underpin “Something to Hold” tell us how, by letting go, we can find out what is truly meaningful in life.
“Underdog” has a jam-like spontaneity to it that feels as if it’s unfolding in real time, right in front of you.
The closing track,” Magnolia,” is another one that’s been pared-down to its bare essentials: acoustic guitar, vocal, and the addition of a lilting accordion to accompany the final verse.
All in all, “Are You Open” is a wonderful collection of well-written songs performed simply and with great sensitivity. Walker’s abilities as a composer and lyricist continue to grow, and his tasteful, understated playing is a perfect complement. The performances – and production – on this collection are top-notch. My only issue with this collection is that it simply ends too soon, leaving me wanting more! And that’s not a bad problem to have. And if you like what you hear on “Are You Open,” be sure to check out Seth Walker on YouTube, to see some live performances of these songs, as well as songs from his other 9 albums.