Getting down and dirty with Joe Walsh

Mole hunting
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 4, 2011

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.

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: CD Reviews , Music, Bob Dylan, Greg Brown,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   HIP HOP SUMMER  |  July 31, 2014
    For pure output, it’s hard to argue Portland is anything but a hip hop city.
  •   SEVEN-MAN ARMY  |  July 24, 2014
    Lately, it’s been open season on “Wagon Wheel,” which has become the acoustic musician’s “Freebird,” one of the very few songs that people actually know well enough to find it funny to request.
    "(Israeli) immigration asked me at the airport why I didn’t leave when I could have and I said it was because I felt safe. They told me I was nuts.”
  •   WHAT YOU SAY, RYAN?  |  July 16, 2014
    Ryan’s calling card is his sincerity. While the production and presentation are of a genre, you won’t find him talking about puffing the chron or dissing women or dropping a million f-bombs or using a bunch of contemporary rap jargon. He’s got a plan and he executes it, with more variety and modes of attack than he’s had on display to this point.
  •   BETTY CODY, 1921-2014  |  July 11, 2014
    The Maine music community lost a hidden giant last week with the death of Betty Cody, at 92.

 See all articles by: SAM PFEIFLE