BluesWax Spotlight On
Joe Louis Walker
A Show and CD Review
Alligator Records – Released January 2012
BluesWax Rating: 9
Live at Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco – March 1, 2012
By Dan D. Harrell
On the January Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (LRBC), folks got a preview of Joe Louis Walker’s newest CD, Hellfire, and a peek at a new band with some familiar San Francisco Bay Area faces.
Those same familiar faces showed up with Walker on a blustery Thursday night for the first of a two-night stand at San Francisco’s leading blues club, Biscuits & Blues. Walker gave the audience a full dose of the new CD and a good variety of his crowd-pleasing favorites – nearly twenty tunes over two eighty-minute sets, with no repeats.
I’ve been seeing Walker, 62, for a very long time – he’s a local boy made good – and there’s one particular show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco about thirty years ago. It remains vivid in my overcrowded mind that’s forgotten so many other shows. Vivid because of the roaring intensity of the music coupled with an energized audience that spent most of the show standing, clapping, stomping, and singing. It was a great night.
I’m happy to report that, all these years later, Walker can still deliver one hell of a performance, and his guitar playing has evolved into pure art, seldom touching the familiar and always pushing the boundaries of the instrument. His songwriting and singing are very strong too, tough in places, tender in others, but showing a conciseness and clarity of thought.
During a few short conversations on the LRBC, I found Walker to be friendly, forthcoming, and pleasant. Very comfortable in his own skin, so to speak. Of course, when he said, “I love BluesWax” I was all his. He brings the pleasant but leaves most of the peaceful when he delivers his edgy, hard-rocking shows.
Walker understandably concentrates less on esoteric licks and more on singing and showmanship in performance, but on Hellfire he explores places with his guitar that just might qualify as uncharted territory.
Walker opens the CD and ends his live show with the title song, which immediately introduces the complexity and competence of this man, and his creative approach on many cuts. It starts out with a country-boogie line that could be the intro for a Dave Dudley trucking song and evolves through cool, organ-laced gospel rock, to Walker doing expert, and unusual, guitar calisthenics with feedback, sustain, and other effects that made me think of, yea, Jimi Hendrix.
Walker does have a connection to the lefty “strato-master” by the way – when he was growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s, Walker was already opening shows for folks like Hendrix and Lightnin’ Hopkins at the city’s famous Matrix, where Walker was house guitarist at sixteen. Walker’s music has gone in several directions since then. In addition to the obvious Hendrix influence, he credits his good friend, and former roommate, Michael Bloomfield with helping shape his sound. He also took a decade off from performing “popular” music (1975-85) when he was a member of the gospel-only group, The Spiritual Corinthians.
There’s lots of evidence that Walker hasn’t strayed too far from the church, in performance and on Hellfire. But he’s not there to hit you over the head with it. On the CD, he delivers a six-minute, rocking “Soldier for Jesus” that’s hard not to clap along to and enjoy no matter what your beliefs. When I first heard it, I flashed back to the group Mylon and minister/singer Mylon LeFevres, who could rock the gospel as good as anybody I’ve ever heard.
In concert Walker extends “Soldier” and his fabulous slide guitar work that’s as tasty as can be. And there’s his light-hearted, jazzy delivery of “Don’t Cry” about getting to heaven – “It’s gonna be all right/When I die/So pray for me/That I’ll make it to the other side.”
The title song itself presents a familiar theme about staying one step ahead of the devil, coupled with the age-old struggle of doing good versus doing evil – “Burning down the devil’s highway/Lovin’ everyone I meet/Tryin’ to live my life the right way/But the flames are nipping at my feet/Hellfire, it’s my curse/Hellfire that’s my church.”
Among many things, Hellfire is notable for a couple big ones. It is Walker’s first for Alligator Records, which continues its recent winning streak of signing great, established artists and releasing splendid albums from them. And it’s produced by the ultra-talented Tom Hambridge, who also plays drums and whose credits would fill this column, including writing songs and producing for Buddy Guy.
Hambridge contributes lyrics on five Hellfire tunes with full writing credits for three. One of his best is “I Won’t Do That,” a slow, deep blues that finds Walker pleading to a suspicious lover that he’ll be faithful this time – “Now you say I can’t be trusted/When we’re apart/That if you let me love you/I’ll only break your heart/But I won’t do that/Baby, you know I won’t do that/I’ve done most everything baby/But you know that I won’t do that.”
There are some real rockers on Hellfire, including “Ride All Night,” a Walker-Hambridge collaboration that could easily fit into a Rolling Stones set. It’s got Richards/Wood-like slashing guitars, in-your-face organ from Reese Wynans and wonderful female backup vocals by Wendy Moten. The rest of the band on Hellfire includes Rob McNelley on guitar and Tommy McDonald on bass. The touring band has LB Bradford on bass, Ronnie Smith on drums,and no second guitar.
The Jordanaires provide vocals on a pair of Hellfire’s songs, and a talented group of horns – Matt White on trumpet, Roy Agee on trombone, and Max Abrams on sax – sit in on the rave-up, George Thorogood-like “Too Drunk To Drive Drunk” and on “I Know Why,” a slow, soulful ballad that counsels the heartbroken to hold on and to trust in the power of love.
Moten is back to deliver knockout vocals on “Black Girls,” another rocker that proclaims (somewhat tongue-in-cheek I suspect) that “The blues I’ve been hearing lately/It sounds like rock ‘n’ roll/I’ve been wondering what in the world/Happened to all that soul/We got to have black girls, black girls/We got to have black girls, black girls/Got to have black girls/To put the soul back up into your song.”
The album ends with a very pleasing rendition of Hank Snow’s classic “I’m Movin’ On,” and it couldn’t sound more country if Merle Haggard was playing it. John D’Amato sits in on guitar.
Now about those “new faces” mentioned above. Just like on the cruise, Walker now features two female singers – the very talented Bertha Blades aka Sari Posner, who has the raw vocal power of Lydia Pense [Cold Blood] and young daughter Lena Walker, whose voice is still developing, but she can dance up a storm and looks like she’s having the time of her life backing up dad.
But the familiar faces to the Bay Area, on the boat and at the show, were keyboardist Tony Stead, saxophonist Keith Crossan and trumpeter Tom Poole, all recently separated from the Tommy Castro Band. In fact their last performance with Castro was the very last show of the cruise. Crossan has already started his own self-named band, featuring Poole, and Stead can be found working with them and many others, so it appears they all have landed squarely on their feet. They fit in with Walker like they’d been together for years.
The live show included lots of good music that’s not on the new CD, too, like The Pimpinaires wonderful tune “I Don’t Sing For Free”. With its gospel-infused sound, but R-rated lyrics, it’s often referred to as the musician’s national anthem. Look it up and you’ll see why.
Blades stepped up to shine frequently, including big-time covers of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Sugar Coated Love.” Stead’s uplifting electric piano was right on the money and even Joe and the band frequently gazed over at him in appreciation. Of course the band did “T-Bone Shuffle,” the jazzy, everybody-gets-a-solo “Eyes Like A Cat,” and a great version of “Tell Me Why” that turned Walker loose for some exceptional slide guitar.
Towards the end of the show, Walker introduced a guest, “My godfather Fillmore Slim,” and the lanky, blues crooner ambled to the stage for “Every Day I Have The Blues,” then “Every Night And Every Day.” The Bay Area’s Nancy Wright joined in on sax to add to the festive mood. Introducing the latter tune, Walker remarked, “We’re going to do some gut-bottom blues like we used to play at the Saloon in 1985.” And they did.
This is Walker’s twenty-fourth CD in a little over twenty-five years, but he’s been playing professionally for forty-five years. He’s won four Blues Music Awards, including album of the year for 2010’s Between A Rock And A Hard Place, and he’s always on the ballot it seems, having notched forty-eight BMA nominations. Walker is nominated this year too, for contemporary male artist.
With Hellfire, Joe Louis Walker offers a rock-solid set of really good songs. It seems he’s taken his guitar work to another level and to some unexpectedly imaginative places, whether it is excellent slide work, hard-rocking blues, or psychedelic effects. This is truly a tour de force that’s sure to please, whether you’ve followed Walker for forty years or you are hearing him for the first time.
Dan D. Harrell is contributing writer for BluesWax and president of The Write Answer in San Jose, CA, specializing in writing, public relations and marketing consulting. Contact him by commenting below or at email@example.com.
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