Willy Porter,
Falling Forward
(Six Degrees, 1999)

I first saw Willy Porter live when he was touring with Tori Amos. A man with a guitar seemed an unlikely opening act for Amos, but I had vague memories that I'd heard him on the radio and that he shared a bit of her confessional soul. He plays guitar while she focuses on her Bšsendorfer, his voice is laid back and roughhewn as opposed to her high-flying throaty warble, and his songs tend to be more down to earth than her more recent material. However, he proved to be a suitable match on that tour.

Porter's 1999 release, Falling Forward, is his first since 1994's Dog Eared Dreams, an album that later was re-released by Private Music, a major label, and garnered him that radio airplay I remembered. He's back on a smaller label, Six Degrees, after going through what he terms "the major label letdown" experienced by far too many up-and-coming performers today. "Mystery," the album's opening track, may make the major label regret its loss. Porter celebrates his happiness while wondering about the mystery of love in this upbeat, yet moody, love song. With a casual rock beat featuring Porter's gentle finger picking along with Knox Chandler's "crafty guitar devices" and Max Meixner's keyboards, Porter recreates the joy of finally finding that right person. The lyrics could be trite, but his opening verse of "Rolling through my mind like a carnival / Cotton candy, the queen of the fair / The moon burned through your fabric / Like a gypsy moth / You danced drunk on the air" takes the emotions to a higher level.

He also can recreate various musical styles and expand upon them. "Tribe" momentarily hedges on techno, then backs down to a deep-felt groove feel, with drum and guitar loops filling in the spaces. It is followed by "Hard," a song slightly reminiscent of The Band, that takes the mood back a couple of decades with its opening piano and harmonica cadences.

"Sowelo," which was written shortly after the death of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, concerns the ancient Norse rune sowelu. Porter himself admits that he's not sure exactly what the song is about. It has a quick, almost rushed pace, and while it may represent Buckley's journey to another dimension, the human experience of coming to knowledge, or absolutely nothing at all, Porter's voice sounds free and easy as he soars on the chorus.

Falling Forward finds Porter attempting to bridge the gap between singer-songwriter material with popular radio appeal, such as "Mystery" and "The Line," along with pieces that ring of a rugged or even meditative origin. They include the esoteric "Infinity," a more experimental number that slowly wends its way to a 5:30 time. Porter ignores the drive for top-40 materials and heads back to his roots on "Road Bones," an solo instrumental track that shows off his accomplished handling of a 12-string slide guitar.

Indeed, his skillful guitar playing makes Porter stand out among the numerous singer-songwriters making the rounds these days. He also can turn a phrase nicely with his lyrics, and his soulful voice, one that performs equally well in both his upper and lower ranges, works those lyrics to their heights. Not every song is equally strong; occasionally, there are some vague similarities. However, Porter is well on his way to becoming a major player in the singer-songwriter world. His new record label states that "we're crossing musical borders and breaking down walls between the genres." Porter should feel at home with them for quite some time.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001

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