The phone rang and my aunt's voice was on the other end. She asked to speak to my father, but I knew what she was going to tell him. Over the past ten months, my grandfather, who was seventy-seven, had been in and out of the hospital with debilitating health and we knew we were in the final stretch. I went to the top of the stairs and called for my dad to pick up the phone, he came to the phone, and my aunt told him that their father was gone. He hung up the phone and let out this wail of grief I have not heard before or since. In a world hell-bent on preparing us for anything and everything little is taught about losing a loved one. Looking upon my father as a constant source of strength, it was hard to watch him be that susceptible but it was also a necessity, as the man who brought him into this world had passed onto the next.
Over the last several months, I have heard that wail every time I have listened to Butch Walker. When I watched Butch Walker last December onstage at the Double Door, he played a few new songs and informed the crowd he would begin recording a new record in February. While we did not quite get a new record in 2013, we received an eighteen-minute EP this past September that captures the sound of life's little moments better than any other musical release this year. The album was semi-aborted when one of his main inspirations, his father- "Big Butch", saw his health decline. Knowing that the end was approaching, Walker focused his time and attention on five songs that became the EP Peachtree Battle in the hopes his father could hear the completed work before he passed. "Big Butch" died shortly thereafter but not before Walker was able to play the songs to his father holding his hand. Listening to Peachtree Battle it is impossible not to let this inform your listening experience, but this is for the better. It pulls you in and never let you go. For all the schooling we receive in life along with formal trainings for jobs, its amazing no one ever teaches us about is love. Society is built on beating the humanity out of you. This is why I have always believed the arts to be crucial teachers. They give life color and perspective you will not find in office buildings or educational enterprises. The blood in Walker's veins boiled with love and despair and he poured it out onto eighteen-minutes of vinyl. Peachtree Battle is a wistful set of songs that encapsulate life superbly. Black and white memories turn to color as rays of light sneak their way through a newborn's bedroom to the incense of a funeral where our prayers rise up above to where we hope there is a higher power.
While Peachtree Battle is a deeply personal record, his concerts this past October and November were the most emotionally gripping shows of his career. Those who have seen Walker before know how zealous and enlivening they can be but he took the crowd into the heart of his darkness and into the luminosity of his light. The Chicago stop in early November was more than just any city, but a second home of sorts to Walker. He does not have any roots here, unlike Atlanta and Los Angeles, but the fans have welcomed Walker warmly ever since his Marvelous 3 days. Over the last decade, he has built a fervent and fanatical following here and even though his set list did not deviate from others on the tour, the crowd sung every song from the top of their lungs and lifted Walker and these songs to another emotional dimension.
Navigating through the most affecting terrain of his career, his set was a greatest hits of sorts capturing not always his biggest and biggest, but his longest lasting. As he performed the Letters ballad "Joan" alone at the piano, only a light at the top of the piano shone down on Walker adding to the atmosphere of intimacy. Beginning the show with a leisurely, yet concentrated start, he weaved his catalog of sobering tales skillfully. As he moved from piano to center stage, he placed an electric guitar over his neck for a set focused on his voice and guitar. "Don't Move" sent chills throughout the crowd with throaty beauty before allowing the crowd to whisper every word to the breakthrough "Mixtape". Things livened up for the Marvelous 3 hit "Freak of the Week" when Walker pulled a fan, Griffin, from the crowd. The solo set was a eye-catching platform for Walker's aptitude for the six-string that have often taken a backseat to his songwriting and production talents over the last decade. On "Freak", he masterfully shifted between rhythm, rhyme and roar as Griffin and Walker harmonized on one of the purest rock-pop songs of the last two decades.
This tour featured a lean four-piece band, including Walker on guitar, and allowed a potency to ascend from his catalog of songs in a way that has not had a chance to before. Walker always likes adding little touches and flourishes to his songs, notably "Goin' Back/ Going Home" in a roots blues version, A story about his father, "Let It Go Where It's Supposed To" was stoic as Walker's eyes were shut as he strummed his guitar capturing an eternal connection with his father that went beyond physical manner. "Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find" featured southern soul, which was notable for being performed with grace on Daryl's House. Whether he is telling tales about Georgia, California or loss, he captures a solemn absorption of the heart.
The crowd vocally hugged Walker on "I've Been Waiting For This" in a sing-a-long no one could forget. The leadoff cut from his EP is amongst his best with a vocal that pressed down upon the audience in a manner that was exquisite. During "The Weight of Her" the organ splashed into the audience and mid-song, he tore the roof off the venue with a incandescent turn into the Who's "Baba O'Riley", before he segued back into "The Weight of Her". "Synthesizers" was a breathtaking sing-a-long with "Come On Eileen" intertwined while "Summer of '89" howled and "The 3 Kids on Brooklyn" was rousing and riotous. When Walker had the crowd on their knees for "Hot Girls In Good Mood" asking for screams so that his father, "Big Butch", could hear us in heaven, confetti and balloons rained upon the audience lifting burdens from our shoulders while opening our hearts and minds. There was something utterly devout about this Walker performance. It felt as if Walker needed these shows as much as his audience did. We all want affirmation that we are not alone on this journey and every time Walker looks out at a crowd, he knows he is amongst family.
Walker is a rare artist who gets better with age. He simply is not fearful to reveal himself to his audience through his art. There is something substantial about the reveal and the candid honesty. We are brought into this world never being taught how to love, learn about loss or grasp what is in front of us. Art helps guide us and make us aware of thing we take for granted. One song on the EP that stands out is the aching "Coming Home". The light of the song comes from its delivery. I thought about my father's wail as the opening piano chords of "Coming Home" echoed out of the speakers. I also heard the sound of his encouragement, his sage advice, and his frustration with me as a teen but above all else, I heard the sound of his undying love that I will take with me wherever I go for the rest of my life. I now watch that same love shared with my four-year-old daughter for whom he is a caretaker a few days a week. Their relationship is like no other and yet, he turned seventy this past July and he has entered the same decade that both his father and Butch's father passed and yet I am not in a stage where I can think about losing him. One Saturday we came home from running errands to find my father pulling an cutting every weed from our garden, something we didn't ask him to do but he did because he knew how pressed we were from time. When I bring my daughter home from his house, her coat is filled with sticks of gum and lollypops. When I ask her who gave her them, she lights up the world with a smile and simply says "Pa". One day I will lay my father to rest knowing I can never repay him for the support and life lessons he provided. I do not want to think about how my daughter will react because the loss will be vast but I know I will play her "Coming Home" and tell her we will one day see him again.
More than any other point in his astonishing career, Butch Walker needed these shows. His blood boiled and heart broke as he sung these songs and told these tales about his pop, but the audience absorbed his music and did more than take it in but gave back to the man who has given so much to them. Their voices ascended high to the heavens and pieced his broken heart back together. It may not be perfect and the cracks will forever be there but every time someone sings one of his songs back to him, it will seep in between those cracks and make it bigger and better. Peachtree Battle is sound of life. It is the sound of a young child playing, the sound of wind outside your window, the sound a baby crying in their crib, the sound of broken heart and the sound of a wail at the end of life. This is art birthed from a combination of massive ache and insightful bliss. Artists, songs and records weave their way in and out of our lives; some are temporary and others sustain for longer deployments into our soul and psyche. Butch Walker's Peachtree Battle is a record that will echo throughout your heart and consciousness until your last breath.
Butch Walker's film Out of Focus and his Peachtree Battle EP are now available for download on iTunes in digital format and can be purchased on vinyl, CD and DVD at ButchWalker.com
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Best of 2013: Butch Walker