Robert Walter Trio, Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver, CO- 7/4 & 5
Robert Walter returned to Denver with some familiar faces and without a few others. His 20th Congress has dialed back the touring ever since the Greyboy Allstars took to the road with more regularity in recent years. On the evening of our nation’s birthday, Robert set up shop for two nights at Cervantes along with the Greyboys’ rhythm section: bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Aaron Redfield, who also have played under the 20th Congress flag. Noticeably absent this time around were 20th Congressmen Cheme Gastelum (sax and flute) and Will Bernard (guitar), noteworthy because the trio format provided room to let Robert’s keyboards take the spotlight. I have attended a trio show comprised of Cheme on sax, Adam Deitch on drums, and Robert holding down the bass lines on the Hammond. That particular combination was enjoyable, mostly due to the audience being treated to Deitch’s fluid responses and impressive cadence; however, the lack of a bassist handcuffed Walter a bit. Since Stillwell and Redfield are familiar with the vast majority of the Robert Walter catalog (and they learned the new stuff during soundcheck, as per the onstage monitor technician), the two night stand at an intimate club became both a highlight reel and a journey through the archives covering songs from the 20th Congress days right up through Robert’s latest release on Palmetto Records, Cure All.
On the Fourth of July, the crowd was unfortunately sparse because of all the other things going on in Denver. Although the venue was not near its capacity, it felt felt like the band was playing a private party for those in attendance with all of the unbridled power of music performed on a main stage at a big festival. I think many well-seasoned music fans have attended concerts at half-full venues where a band goes through the motions because of the lack of audience energy or ticket revenue. Not the case with the Robert Walter Trio. I certainly wished there was a better turn out for the band but I felt worse for all the people who decided to spend their night elsewhere and missed stellar sets of instrumental jazz and funk.
The first night started out with the classic “2% Body Fat” from Robert’s There Goes the Neighborhood album. This up tempo tune set the mood nicely. Clad in his trademark blazer Walter blazed away on the Fender Rhodes, which is now hooked up to a wah pedal that provides another arrow in his sonic quiver of tones. If I’m not mistaken, he threw in a brief tease of Herbie Hancock’s “Hornets” before wrapping up the song and proceeding to “Snakes and Spiders” from Cure All. This new album is a jazzy treatment of mostly Robert Walter compositions with James Singleton on upright bass and Johnny Vidacovich adding his traditional New Orleans-flavored, shuffling percussion. Over the course of the two nights, I found the new material translated well in a live setting even though some of the album’s tracks feature Walter on piano, a rare but welcome departure from his normal terrain.
This reviewer is bound by journalistic integrity, albeit at an amateur level, to admit that the celebration of the Fourth resulted in an incomplete setlist on my part. The next morning I was looking at something that resembled hieroglyphics. After the aforementioned songs, we heard a Greyboy staple “Corry’s Slug and Snail Death,” “Hardware” from the Super Heavy Organ album, “Sweetie Pie”, title track “Cure All”, and a 20th Congress favorite “Aquafresh”. Ending just before midnight, the first set exhibited a remarkable variety of tunes played with the characteristic vigor of any Robert Walter touring project. The second set offered more of the same, including a roaring version of “Kickin’ Up Dust” from Super Heavy Organ while “Rack & Pinion” from the Money Shot Congress release maintained the energy necessary to keep the crowd engaged.
I am always struck by the command that Robert Walter has over his keyboards. His technical ability coupled with a profound sense of knowing how and when to ratchet up the intensity of a song allows the band to hit the peaks at the right time and blow the proverbial roof off the juke joint. He clearly has respect for the traditions of jazz and funk yet displays a playfulness that never gets old to watch. It appears that any musical idea that crosses his mind is transformed by fingers and feet while he wears the immortal face of a soloing musician, the “My-conviction-to-my-music-is-so-deep-it-looks-like-it-hurts” face frequently seen on Warren Haynes and Eric Krasno, to name a few. Walter possesses creativity, restraint, well-developed listening and interpretation skills, extraordinary finger speed, along with a relentless arsenal of downright dirty chops that will amaze even the most pretentious music fans. It doesn’t feel forced, his fingers flow across the keys with natural ease indicative of a musician that has devoted long hours to honing his talents. To watch him patiently build a solo from a gentle, soul-stirring melodic line to an astonishing climax punctuated by a screaming Leslie, all the while keeping his bandmates triangulated within the context of the song is to witness a consummate professional who injects passion for his craft into every set he plays.
Saturday night, night two, included some repeats from the first evening but also fresh takes from Cure All, including “Money Changes,” “Parts and Holes,” “Maple Plank,” and “Rivers of Babylon.” The trio also offered the rocking “Dump Truck” from the 20th Congress’ Giving Up the Ghost album, which plods along with an authoritative riff from the heavily distorted Rhodes. Stout yet agile is how I would describe Chris Stillwell’s work on the bass and he deftly contrasts Robert’s boogaloo style. Behind the drum kit, Aaron Redfield attacked each tune a fiery enthusiasm, winning over the crowd. I last saw him play with the Greyboys on New Year’s Eve this year but he stood out more in the trio format. After midnight, the Robert Walter Trio did indeed let it all hang out, closing it down with a Greyboy essential “Fire-Eater” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Instant Karma.” After speaking with a few others in attendance, we all left with the sense that Robert Walter, Chris Stillwell, and Aaron Redfield brought the heat and threw down fireworks of their own on the holiday weekend.