Tremendous talent, travel abroad has Billy Walton Band going places
Last Saturday night's sound generated by three players in a Smithville pub is not likely what anybody anticipated who ambled in off Route 9 for a beer. The Billy Walton Band is a trio with a tight-knit quality and upper-echelon musical ability, which particularly applies to the frontman from whom the band takes its name. When Walton, a bona fide virtuoso guitarist, cut loose from one of the blues-fueled, classic-rock numbers he and his band mates performed at JD's Pub, launching into a solo jam, many in attendance were probably struck by the same sentence from a Billy Joel song: "Man, what are you doing here?"
That's no slight to the spacious and pristine JD's -- it's an enthusiastic conviction that Walton's skill level, complemented by the bass of William Paris and drummer Marcus Croan, transcends anything you're likely to find in any pub anywhere in southern New Jersey. It is simply astounding what Walton can do with a guitar, and validates why the Gibson Guitar Corporation recently made him a formal endorser of its acoustic line.
Walton, Paris and Croan are all in their early 30s and each cut their teeth on the New Jersey music scene. Walton is an EHT resident originally from Tuckerton who played with Paris in a band called Boccigalupe & the Badboys, which originated, and still performs, in Paris' hometown of Asbury Park. Croan is from Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken. Together they formed the Billy Walton Band, and produced an eponymous CD of six original songs that can be found at their Web site (www.billywaltonband.com).
"I started with Boccigalupe when I was 17 with a friend who's a veteran of the Asbury Park music scene from the '70s [keyboardist Tony Amato]," says Walton, who first took up the guitar at age seven, and first played professionally at age 15. "That area launched the careers of Springsteen and Little Stevie Van Zandt [who dubbed Amato "Boccigalupe," meaning a little nuts], Gary U.S. Bonds, Southside Johnny and other contemporaries [later Jon Bon Jovi], and playing that scene was cool, but I just always wanted to do the classic, guitar-driven power trio."
That phrase might bring to mind the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the trio of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The late Hendrix had a deep-seated influence on Walton personally, and not just in sound and style but through a mutual friend. Walton's career odyssey put him in touch with Roger Mayer, an acoustic electrical engineer who invented a guitar-effects pedal called the Octavia in 1967, which was first used by Hendrix on the song "Purple Haze." Walton employs it currently, and still maintains a close friendship with the British-born Mayer. The Billy Walton Band recently returned from a September tour of England that included eight gigs at eight different venues.
"I've been [to England] three times previously with Boccigalupe, and just wanted to get back in touch with Roger," says Walton. "England loves American music, and they tend to come out and really absorb the guitar, the Jersey sound, the whole thing. That's why I love going back there."
Paris can come across like an encyclopedia of music history, and refers to the sound the Billy Walton Band cranks out as "new school, neo-classic rock." He pointed out that Hendrix and his sophisticated-yet-unorthodox style was not initially embraced by Americans, but was immediately well received in England.
"Hendrix wasn't really understood here at first, but he went to England and got accepted there, came back and became one of the greatest rock 'n' roll guitarists ever in the United States," says Paris. "[Contemporary guitarist] Ben Harper's the same way, and that's part of the reason we wanted to go over there -- as an opportunity. And what was especially cool was that this small area where we stayed was like Asbury Park and 10 other towns just like it all right next to each other.
"England embraces American music because it's part of their roots," adds Paris. "It's pretty crazy when you think that the same area where we stayed is where guys like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Eric Burden all grew up, and they all started as little white kids from England listening to the music of B.B. King and Chuck Berry."
The Billy Walton Band performed all of their original material (a collaboration of all three members) in each of the clubs they played in England, which included a famous jazz club called the Bull's Head where Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts often performs with his jazz band, and Van Morrison uses as a tune-up spot before big concerts.
"At gigs here we try to work in at least two original songs per set, and the rest covers," says Walton. "Being a cover band is a cool thing and it's fun, but we're really out for the originals, and that's why we went to England. Over there we did all originals and threw in a few covers, so it was kind of a reverse scenario."
The Billy Walton Band will return to JD's Pub in Smithville on Friday night, Nov. 2.
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