This weekend sees some of Australia’s best guitarists come to the Byron Bay Brewery for the inaugural Byron Bay Guitar Festival. Conceived and created by Byron Music’s Nick Sergi, the festival presents 43 performances on two stages featuring Kevin Borich, Phil Emmanuel, Jeff Lang, Fiona Boyes, Paul George, and Steve Edmonds and Gold Coast-based guitar legend Louie Shelton. Playing alongside them will be a huge list of local legends including Jim Kelly, Greg Lyon and the Hip Operation, Fergo & The Burden and Azo Bell.
One of the must see acts is Benny Walker, also announced for Bluesfest next year.
A Yorta Yorta Man from Echuca, Benny Walker is the real deal and definitely a star in the making. His killer voice and epic tales are mixed with a deep groove and passion for the land.
For Benny his love affair with the guitar started when he was a kid.
‘I picked up the guitar at the age of ten. My dad and my granddad were guitar players. It was always around. I was learning piano from 8. Once Dad showed me how to play I was off. I had been playing the piano so the guitar took over. I have gone back to the piano now.’
The two instruments provide two key writing voices for Walker who says, ‘Its a really different approach. On the guitar you instinctually go for places that are comfortable. The piano is laid out so differently which is not familiar so I am more unpredicable in what I am doing. It inspires different melodies. The piano inspires one thing, the guitar another.’
Walker has a vocal quality that stops you in your tracks. Interestingly his voice developed alongside his playing. He wasn’t handed a guitar because of his voice. Maybe it was the luck of the draw. Not everyone who learns guitar as a kid ends up with a voice like Walker’s.
‘I think my voice kind of developed, I was so young,’ says Walker. ‘You go through your voice breaking, and there were a few horrible years of attempted singing, and it wasn’t until high school when I started writing and singing a little and my voice developed with the guitar – you pick things you like and imitate. I used to listen to Chuck Berry and I was into old rock’n’roll and blues. The first song I learnt was Pipeline by Dick Dale. I am not sure where it came from but I loved a lot of older stuff as far as singer/songwriters like Neil Young and James Taylor. I also appreciate more contemporary guys like Ryan Adams and John Mayer, guys who play and sing and write great songs.’
When it comes to songwriting for Walker it’s the first line that dictates a song. ‘I have become more and more critical of my writing and hopefully that is starting to show. It’s like a book writer who goes back and re-reads and adjusts and edits. I try and be more concise. You have to be.’
When it comes to songwriting there’s an unguarded rawness that shines through. Oh No You Don’t tells the story of his struggle with dark times.
‘I wrote my album Through the Forest when I was having a tough time, it was a darkish album, and that got me through that and later I started writing some songs for the next record, some blues rocks, and I brought them home and listened to them and picked up the acoustic guitar and walked it back to the home studio in my house and started playing the three chords to Oh No You Don’t. I really quickly realised I was reflecting on that period of my life, so it was about knowing how to deal with those feelings, and when I was well and in the clear, or through the worst of it and on an up and that song came along, it’s quite empowering.’
‘When it came out I had people stopping me in the street and messages about how I had connected with them and I remember how it felt to be like that and it gives someone a feeling they are not alone. People say music can heal, and you can take it as you like, I think it’s a good example of how you can connect with complete strangers.’
Benny Walker, playing on the Saturday, with his full band playing everything off the new EP Undercover and a few songs off the last record.
Byron Bay Guitar Festival at the Byron Bay Brewery this Saturday and Sunday.
For tickets, information and playing schedule, visit www.byronbayguitarfestival.com and keep up to date on their social media pages www.facebook.com/byronbayguitarfest and www.instagram.com/byronbayguitarfest.