Seeing Joe Walsh for the first time, down with Jerks of Grass in some of the final days of the Bramhall Pub, he was immediately "the Android:" playing his mandolin with a faraway stare, just the hint of a head bob, completely expressionless, and never — never — a note missed. He was like one of Asimov's positronic robots, created solely for the purpose of playing diminutive eight-stringed instruments, right down to his well-mannered hair and smooth cheeks.
Now playing with the Stowaways on Monday nights at the Empire — and around the country as part of the Gibson Brothers' traveling band — he is well known as the type of instrumentalist that makes other players stop and stare.
Couple a stoic personality with virtuosity, though, and what kind of solo debut recording do you get? I admit I entered his brand-new Sweet Loam with fears of a soulless display of mandolin ass-kicking à la Joe Satriani. Luckily for anyone who throws this album in the headphones, that couldn't be farther from the truth. What Walsh has given the world is a nuanced and textured group of originals and well-chosen arrangements of songs you definitely know that both shows the world exactly what he can do with his instrument and gives you a glimpse at the man behind the impeccable tone.
He's not exactly the stuff of frontmen, and yet there he is on the cover of his own album. Why? Well, for one, you can't put talent in a closet. Walsh is powerfully good and people were likely falling over themselves to help him put it together. But also because he's clearly got a vision for a brand of acoustic stringband music. This isn't bluegrass (hardly a banjo to be found), and it's not the new roots of the Avetts and Old Crow (none of their bravado and aggressiveness). More accurately, it falls in the measured tones of the Nickel Creek alums (Sara Watson/Punch Brothers) and Abigail Washburn, pretty and delicate and precise and thoughtful.
Maybe most revealing is "Mole in the Ground," Walsh's semi-original (all but the chorus) take on the standard roots repeating meme (like "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" or "New River Train").
"Wish I was a mole in the ground . . . Wish I was a wave on the sea . . .Wish I was a stone in the rain . . . With I was a tree in the wood . . . Wish I was the tide, strong slow." Oh, you mean nameless, anonymous, hidden, one among many? But he's lying in the weeds and he's practical: "I'd tear that mountain down . . . There'd be no boat on me . . . I'd feel no pain . . . I'd know just where I stood . . . I'd know just where to go."
There are so many mando players who would just rip through as many notes as possible in the break, but not Walsh. Like the best players, he knows the value of subtlety and a well-placed whole note. Of course, he's surrounded himself with like-minded players, too — 14 of the region's (and far beyond's) very best.