Guitarist Toby Walker has a long list of adjectives that usually proceed his name: fingerstyle guitar virtuoso, a wizard, Internationally acclaimed, award-winning… Yes, he’s all that, and as he demonstrated Thursday at the Blue Dragon, he’s a one-man band too. Without the aid of a special effects foot pedal, looper or pre-recorded rhythm tracks, Walker just uses his ten fingers and faithful guitar to create a full band’s worth of sounds. “I’d like to introduce you to my bass player, my thumb,” quipped Walker with the curious crowd. He then demonstrated how the rest of his fingers played rhythm and lead simultaneously on a song called “Swing Bean.”
Walker even had the venue’s sound tech baffled when a low hum happened between songs. The tech rushed over to give him a fresh set of batteries for his acoustic guitar assuming that he had modified the instrument. Turning his guitar around for the audience to see that there were no additional plugs or add-ons, Walker said, “Folks, this guitar needs no batteries!” Still not convinced, the tech left a pack of batteries on a monitor.
For two decades, Walker traveled to the deep South to apprentice with some of the old-time blues musicians. While taking lessons, he learned slide techniques, finger pickings, and tunings from the greats. Walker, a former Long Island resident, talked about a 1993 journey to Leland, Mississippi, in search of James “Son” Thomas, a 73-year-old self-taught African American bluesman.
Walker set his guitar on a stand to dive deep into a story about his quest to become a better player. Finding Thomas wasn’t easy and with only “he’s at the chicken shack,” as a clue, Walker eventually found the old blues singer living in a sharecropper’s shack. Thomas taught Walker the chord structure to “61 Highway” including his “secret note,” which Walker demonstrated for the crowd. You can read the full story on Walker’s website.
Keeping a traditional blues theme flowing, Walker brought out his finger slide and talked about the time he opened for Muddy Waters when Walker was in an electric blues band in his early twenties. With that, Walker segued into “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” a classic Waters’ tune. Walker also paid tribute to blues great Robert Johnson by playing “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Local guitarist Miles Wakefield, who played an engaging pre-show set, picked up his harmonica and started playing along – first from the crowd, and then being invited to the stage. Walker graciously gave him a solo and encouraged the audience to give him a hand.
For his last song, Walker transitioned from swing band to parade mode with John Philip Sousa’s march “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” I was stuck on the song’s title at first, and my boomer brain kept flashing back to the Popeye cartoon when the song was used as a backdrop while Popeye gobbles down spinach and mows down bad guys with powerful blows. Sans tuba and piccolos, but with the same gusto, Walker had us marching in our seats and tapping our toes with his clever acoustic guitar version.
Walker’s a talented showman and storyteller, and while it may be a bit odd to listen to the blues passionately played under swaying palm trees, he keeps the mood lighthearted and fun. Mahalo as well to promoter Les Hershorn for all the talented guitar players he keeps bringing our way.
Read my interview with Toby Walker here.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby