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The Arts

Roots musician Little Toby Walker to play, teach at Hooker-Dunham Theater

Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery is at 139 Main St. in downtown Brattleboro. Little Toby Walker concert tickets are $20. For reservations, call 802-254-9276. For more information, visit www.hookerdunham.org.

BRATTLEBORO—On Saturday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m., internationally acclaimed blues musician Little Toby Walker will perform a benefit concert for Twilight Music at the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery at 139 Main St. in downtown Brattleboro.

Special guests Steve Chipman on acoustic guitar and Thom Huntington on upright bass are taking time out of their world tour to open the show with a 45-minute set.

Walker will lead a blues workshop from 1 to 2:30 p.m. that day. Only 12 seats for that are available, and must be reserved. The workshop fee is $35 on first-come, first-served basis.

Concert proceeds will support Twilight Music, which presents concerts by regional, national, and international performers at Next Stage and Greenhoe Theatre in Putney, and Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery and New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, as well as the annual Twilight on the Tavern Lawn, a free seven-concert series in Putney.

Walker has been hailed as a roots music fingerstyle guitar virtuoso. He’s toured the United States, England, Wales, France, Germany, Belgium and Holland, combining blues, ragtime, country, bluegrass, rock, and old time jazz into his own unique style.

Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane says, “Flat out... you have to hear this great musician... I’m blown away.”

Legendary jazz producer John Hammond adds, “A real killer with fantastic technique. He just knocks me out.”

Among Walker’s many honors are the 2002 International Blues Challenge Award, presented by The Blues Foundation, and the 2010 New York Music Award for Best Instrumental CD.

His latest release, “Shake Shake Mama” (2009), is hailed as a shining success in the genre of traditional blues recordings.

Walker’s passion for blues, rags, folk, and other traditional American music led him to travel to the Mississippi Delta, Virginia, and the Carolinas, where he tracked down some of the more obscure — but immensely talented — music makers of an earlier era. There he learned directly from the likes of Eugene Powell, James “Son” Thomas, Etta Baker, and R.L. Burnside.

Walker is also a highly regarded instructor of blues guitar. He has recently released two instructional guitar DVDs for the world-famous company Homespun Tapes, both of which have been getting rave reviews.

Carnegie Hall acknowledged his rare talents and hired him to augment and teach in their “American Roots” program aimed at honors-level middle school students. At Walker’s blues guitar workshops, similar to the one he will lead in Brattleboro, participants get the story behind each lick, each progression, each lead run in playing the blues guitar.

On earning his chops

Walker has been playing the blues for 40 years. He started when he was 17 and was a member of two bands. He has been a solo artist for the past 30 years. Although he has enjoyed playing in bands, he prefers the freedom that comes with a solo career.

“I can choose what and when I want to play,” he says. “It is easier getting along with myself than wondering whose medications aren’t working today. Playing alone, the lows may be way lower, but the highs are so much higher that it makes it all worth it.”

Walker writes much of the music he plays. He proudly characterizes himself as a blues performer, but he claims that his compositions “tend to stay away from the ‘slit-your-wrist’ variety of the blues.”

His songs are often comical, as in his Weak Willed and Easily Led.

A Toby Walker concert can be an unpredictable adventure.

“I am often being criticized by the musicians who play with me because I always go off of the set list of songs list we prepared,” he says. “In any concert, I might play some ragtime blues, then turn to Delta blues, then some bluegrass, switching styles of music within four minutes of the show.

“I bring four or five instruments on stage at a concert, each having a different tone needed for my music. But I do not only play my own music: Part of my act is playing the songs that I learned directly with the musicians in the South. I enjoy telling the audience stories about how I learned these pieces from those great artists.”

Walker is somewhat reticent to talk about his personal life.

“What is there to say?” he asks. “I like Cocoa Puffs. That’s about it.”

Actually, he has found out that this little fact turns out to be intriguing to a lot of people.

“I was set on volunteering at my hometown hospital in physical therapy, and when I was asked on my application ‘What is one of your best characteristics?’ I couldn’t think of an answer, and then wrote down the first thing that came to mind: ‘I like Cocoa Puffs.’ Well, all the nurses at the hospital became very intrigued by that confession. Each came up and asked me, ‘So you’re the guy who loves Cocoa Puffs?’ I don’t know if it’s a chocolate thing or what, but that’s the line I use to get all the women.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #217 (Wednesday, August 21, 2013).

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