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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 02:32 pm

Living the fantasy

Springfield gets first dibs on favorite son Micah Walk’s newest release

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The Micah Walk Band (left to right): John Cardoni, Micah Walk, Darin Holthaus, and Dan Hartman
PHOTO BY CARYN BROOMBY

One consistent truth in the music business: In spite of the heartfelt aspiration and keen ambition felt by the people who trudge it, the path to making music for a living is littered with lost dreams, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled desires. Micah Walk, a singer/songwriter and leader of the Micah Walk Band, is quite aware of this, so much so that his latest record is titled Bright Side Fantasy in recognition of the desire to bridge the gap between hope and reality.

"It's the title of a song I wrote after I got back from a two-week tour and I didn't want to come home," Walk says. "For me it was about pursuing what really makes someone happy, doing what they love. That goes for anyone, not just me."

The song touches on the universal sentiment of hope, but the potent desire to succeed is personal for the nearly-27-year-old Walk. From his earliest longing to play guitar in high school to his relocation to Chicago, a little over a year ago, Walk has steadily pursued the goal of sustaining a living through artistic purpose. Beneath the unassuming personality and low-key demeanor is a determined and confident individual who takes things step by step, heading where his heart takes him. According to someone who knows Micah pretty well, this is normal behavior.

"When he started, I think he would just sit in a corner and sing. He didn't like to sing in front of anybody," says Dan Walk, Micah's father. He's a lifelong resident of Girard, a town of about 2,200 souls 30 miles south of Springfield on State Route 4. "I knew one day he would come out and start doing it."

After buying a starter guitar kit to satisfy a request from the 15-year-old wannabe musician, dear old Dad watched to see whether his youngest son would stick with "the music thing." No one else in the family ever showed any inclination toward playing music, but the patient father was willing to see how far it would go — whether the guitar would be a passing fancy for young Micah or a stronger draw. They started lessons with a teacher whose quaint songs and simple technique didn't appeal to the aspiring rocker. When Dad invited a musician friend named Ed Gradyover to teach Micah a few basic chords and old rock & roll numbers, the teenager jumped in with both feet.

PHOTO BY CARYN BROOMBY

"After that he always had a guitar in hand, strumming and playing, wherever he went," says the elder Walk. "While we were watching TV or doing anything, he was playing that guitar."

During his high-school years, influenced by the popular bands of the day — Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, plus the burgeoning Christian-rock scene — Walk teamed up with other local high-school musicians and played church youth-group rallies and various other gigs. He wrote a few songs then but now claims that "they weren't very good at all." After graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Springfield, taking general classes geared toward a major in communications and a few introductory music classes that expanded his ideas of melodic structure and harmonic theory. His musical tastes grew to include classic artists such as the Beatles and singer/songwriter types like Neil Young, Ryan Adams, Dave Matthews, and Damien Rice. Walk cites Rice as "a huge influence" but later found it necessary to distance himself from the Irish singer's startling intensity and powerful attraction to forge ahead with an original sound of his own. During this formative artistic stage Walk played out some, continued his UIS studies, and worked at Samuel's Music, always playing that guitar while fine-tuning his singing and songwriting skills.

"He would come home late from college and I would hear him in his room at 2 a.m., going over songs on a recording machine," his father says. "It was muffled, but I could hear him practicing."

It took some time before Dad ever heard his son sing in person.

"Ifollow him as much as I can," says the elder Walk, "but the first time I really heard him, he was playing up in Springfield at 11 West."

Walk moved to the capital city in 2003 and immersed himself in the local music scene, performing at local open mics. During one such open mic at Floyd's Thirst Parlor, Jim Wavering — owner/operator of Marly's Pub, a live-music club on the west side of the Old Capitol Plaza, and 11 West, a now-defunct bar that was located at the corner of Fifth and Adams streets — chanced upon a Walk performance. He immediately hired the singer/songwriter for a weekly gig at 11 West.

"I didn't realize how playing bars and clubs worked then. It was totally new to me," Walk says. "Now I know what it meant to be approached by him and offered the job. It doesn't always happen that way."

Walk performed most Tuesdays for nearly four years, first at 11 West, then at Mojo's, and finally Marly's Pub, cultivating a following along the way. He played cover songs he liked and originals from his growing list, usually going it alone on guitar and voice, with the exception of harmony vocals supplied by Macie Smith, a friend from the church days.

"I met Micah at the Abundant Life church in Auburn when he played with the Sunday-morning band," says Smith, a former Chatham resident. "I ran sound and he would come early to practice. I wasn't aware then of my music abilities. I owe that to Micah."

Originally another high-school friend, Tenika Beard, sang live with Smith and on Walk's first recording project. When Beard left the area to pursue other interests, Walk asked Smith to stay on and continue singing. She became a staple in Walk's solo live show, adding delicately balanced harmonies to his powerfully subtle tunes. Nowadays they sing together whenever they can — which isn't very often — but she recalls working together as "a natural fit" and Walk remembers the collaboration as "a really good time." She now lives in Springfield, employed by Blue Cross Blue Shield and taking piano lessons while working on "getting out and playing more."

Walk's live shows seem to evoke a common response that echoes Wavering's reaction on first hearing the restrained yet intriguing performer.

"I don't think he realizes there is something different about him," Smith says. "Other musicians try to make you like them, and he just does what he likes to do and people respond. I think humility is a big part of the reason."

Darin Holthaus records a drum track for the Micah Walk Band’s new release, Bright Side Fantasy.
PHOTO BY JOHN CARDONI

Stolie, a talented one-name Chicago-based singer/songwriter, has hosted open mics throughout the city, experiencing more than her fair share of players and poseurs in the process. She saw a difference in her audiences' reactions when Walk took his turn on stage.

"People would actually stop talking and listen when Micah would sing," she says. "That's not always the case at open mics. It was surprising and encouraging."

This beguiling of the audience is certainly not the result of histrionics or stage antics. Walk is about as undemonstrative a performer as you'll find: His voice is closer to a whisper than to a scream, and his guitar playing generally entails gentle fingerpicking. What, then, is the root of his appeal? Everyone has a different opinion of what makes Walk interesting, but each of those opinions contains some reference to a mysterious something that draws the listener in and appeals to an unspecified emotion. Walk is just as lost as to why anyone cares to listen as the most rabid fan; in fact, he downplays it with his usual modesty that approaches reticence at times.

"I'm not sure why it happens or even that it does. I'm just happy someone wants to listen," he says, slowly choosing his words and obviously embarrassed by a question concerning his appeal. "I mostly just sing and write for myself."

Whatever the attraction, the acquired attention gave Walk a local fanbase and the confidence to pursue more recording projects while whetting his appetite to find a way to a make a living playing music. In other words, he went looking for a way to reach the bright-side fantasy before he even knew what it was.

During his Springfield stay, Walk played mostly in central Illinois, with a few forays to neighboring states; graduated with a communications degree from UIS; and continued to teach guitar and work part-time at Samuel's. In 2004 Walk recorded a five-song EP of originals and in 2005 finished his first full-length recording. Both were recorded locally with friends at home studios, and though the releases lacked high-dollar polish and production values, they showed Walk's growth as a singer and songwriter, presenting his material in a favorable light and garnering more fans and attention.

As he maintained the solo performance experience and played with a few area musicians, Walk searched for players to flesh out his tunes and bring the full-band recorded sound to a live audience. In early 2006 he hooked up with some Milliken University graduates, well schooled in music performance and theory, playing in a band called Public Display of Funk. John Cardoni was the guitarist and Darin Holthaus the drummer, and when Walk found them they were looking for something, too.The bandmates recruited bassist Dan Hartman, a former roommate from Cardoni's and Holthaus' college days, resulting in a combo that was cohesive and engaged, ready and willing to interpret Walk's backload of original songs.

"I first met Darin and we wanted to put the band together," Walk recalls. "We booked a gig at Mojo's only a month down the road to light a fire under us. It was our first gig and with only a few practices, but it worked."

Soon they were discussing recording-studio options, settling on Mark Rubel's Pogo Studio, in Champaign-Urbana, as the home for the first recording of the Micah Walk Band. Change, released in mid-2006, explores the funkier, rock side of the band, fleshing out the heartfelt songs with a jazz-fusion flair. The band flexed some musical muscle and Walk stretched beyond the typical singer/songwriter mode to create a forceful, band-driven, electric sound much different than his earlier acoustic outings.

"We approached that record as more of a jam session and went through a variety of styles," Walk says. "The songs were longer and we were evolving, plus we were on the studio clock and couple of the songs didn't come out the way we wanted."

Local fans seemed to enjoy the record and the live concerts. They showed their appreciation by voting Walk Best Musician for 2006 (runner-up in 2007) and Best Singer for 2007 in the Illinois Times reader poll. In March 2007 Walk left Springfield and took up residence in Chicago, hoping to increase his chances of being heard and to develop new opportunities. With the expanded gig base of a large metropolitan area, he's played plenty of places, but a larger population also means more competition, which often translates into lower-paying shows. Walk held off getting a day job for as long as possible, but he now works part-time in sales for a dot-com cottage industry. The job provides flexible hours to accommodate his pursuit of the musical dream and a steady paycheck to cover the costs of living in the big city.

The band has made some adjustments, with members now living in various Illinois cities, but has stayed committed to the Micah Walk Band project. Although pleased with the majority of Change, the guys decided to record the next disk at their own pace, avoiding the time and money limitations of a professional working studio. Home studios are a common reality today, boasting high-quality equipment that would have been unimaginable not that many years ago. Armed with bass player Hartman's recording-engineer knowledge and studio gear, the band transformed Holthaus' home into a makeshift studio and proceeded to record whenever their schedules allowed, mostly on weekends, for nearly a year before completing the latest album.

"This is the best thing I've ever been a part of musically speaking," Walk says. "We found our voice as a band and I feel I found mine as a songwriter and that helped the overall band sound. This record is what we really are."

Others who have heard prerelease copies of the recording tend to agree, lauding the balance of acoustic and rock sounds as a fitting equilibrium between Walk's songwriting style and the band's instrumental approach. The official release for Bright Side Fantasy in Springfield is set for Friday, July 25, with a 7 p.m. all-ages show at Andiamo and a 10 p.m. adult show at Marly's Pub. The CD comes out in Chicago on Aug. 8 with a release party at the Cubby Bear, a longtime Wrigleyville bar, and is available online now through CD Baby and iTunes.

After the long recording process and buildup to the release comes the reality part of the business side: pushing the product to the public and gaining recognition in any way necessary to sell those CDs.

"It's kinda like being pregnant," Walk says. "You put all this time into making the record, then you have to shift gears. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it."

Walk sees the group "trying to work smarter than harder," supporting the new CD by playing out more, scoring radio airplay, keeping the Internet connections running, and generally raising public awareness for the band without disrupting the private lives of its members.

"When you're doing it yourself, you gotta get out there and do it," he says. "I like to do what I do and figure it out as I go along."

And that would be the way to Micah Walk's bright-side fantasy.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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