Joe Louis Walker is the real deal. He plays the blues
effortlessly and brilliantly in all their ragged glory. He can do hard rock,
deep soul, gospel and electric blues. He deserves to be on a plain with B.B.
King and Buddy Guy. But B.B. started recording in the 1940’s; Buddy in the 1960’s;
Walker in 1986.
And the blues has not been as big commercially over the past 25 years as it was
when those early legends were getting their start.
Hellfire should go
a long way in righting that injustice. His first release on the great Alligator
label, it just might be the best of the 24 albums he has cut over his career.
He wrote or co-wrote seven of the eleven songs on the album, which was produced
by Tom Hambridge, who produced Guy’s recent Grammy winners.
is the last of a dying breed. He learned the blues not from listening to albums,
as younger players do today, but by playing with and studying at the feet of
the old masters themselves. This was how the blues used to be passed from
generation to generation. That tradition is mostly gone now. In Walker’s case, it did not hurt that he grew up in the San Francisco area during
the mid-60’s when it was a hotbed of musical creativity with everything from
psychedelic rock to the blues being played live. Back then every major rock
concert had to have a blues master somewhere down on the bill. So from the age
of 16, Walker
was playing with the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Albert King, Willie Dixon
and Ike Turner as house guitarist at a famous club, The Matrix. His roommate for
a time was the legendary guitarist, Mike Bloomfield. But he was also strongly
influenced by gospel music and for a decade played nothing but that music as a
member of the Spiritual Corinthians.
A large part of the blues reflects the age old battle
between the secular and sacred. And it is reflected here on the title track
vocals are pure gospel as he sings, “Running down the Devil’s Highway…Always
have to serve two masters/good/bad/left and right/devil sitting on my shoulder
and the angels crying with all their might.” But this is not a gospel song, as Walker proves with his
hard rock, almost psychedelic, guitar solo.
On two songs – “Soldier for Jesus” and “Don’t Cry” – Walker shares vocals with
the legendary Jordanaires, who backed everybody
from Elvis to Patsy Cline to George Jones. As an old blues singer told me in Mississippi decades ago,
you can be “singin’ and drinkin’ in the juke on Saturday night and singin’ and
prayin’ in church on Sunday morning.” That is the blues. And for an original
artist not from the South, Walker
is a master.
But the best track on Hellfire is also the best rock song of 2012 so far: “Ride All Night.” Think Rolling
Stones during their early 1970’s Exile period
and you have “Ride All Night.” This hard driving infectious song will have you
hitting replay over and over.
Again, the paradox of Joe Louis Walker’s career. If this one
cut had come out around 1975, it would have instantly become an FM radio hit
across the country. But Walker
is a true blues professional. He perseveres as all true bluesmen must. In the
process he is bringing the blues to a new audience who, unfortunately, never
saw Albert King, or Albert Collins for that matter, play. Hellfire is a brilliant album with no weak cuts. Joe Louis Walker
proves here that the blues is alive and vital and showing no signs of going
away. If you don’t know Joe Louis Walker, this is the perfect place to begin
“Ride All Night” “What’s It Worth” TOM