Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Joe Louis Walker Keeps a Witness For the Blues

One would be hard-pressed to name any other blues performer in the past two decades who has produced such a body of recorded work to stand-up to that of Joe Louis Walker. Rooted in the blues and soul traditions, and informed by his time in gospel groups, he has been able to rock with going heavy-metal over the top. No one covers such a range of blues at such a consistent high level as Walker who has a new disc, Witness to the Blues (Stony Plain). The disc was produced by Duke Robilliard who brought together a backing band anchored by the keyboards of Bruce Katz and includes Doug James on baritone and tenor sax as well as Scott Aruda on trumpet. Robilliard himself adds guitar to 5 of the 11 songs, which includes several new Walker originals as well as interpretations of songs that have not been overdone (no Sweet Home Chicago or Mustang Sally). An example of the latter is J.J. Malone’s It’s a Shame, that opens this set. It has a nice funky groove with stinging guitar which contrasts with Midnight Train, a rocking original with a tinge of rockabilly flavor in the backing and some guitar with echoes of Ike Turner. I am not familiar with the original of Lover’s Holiday, which is a fine soul duet with Shemekia Copeland. It is followed by Hustlin’, a slow blues whose melody echoes Little Walter’s Everything’s Gonna Be Allright, with a lyric about “hustling my life away,” and contains a fiery solo. Walker’s adaptation of the traditional Rollin’ and Tumblin’ brings life to well known blues, owing as much to Elmore James’ recording as the better known renditions, although Walker’s voice at a couple spots here sounds a little hoarse. “Highview” is a mid-tempo guitar instrumental with Katz also getting some solo time. along with Robillard trading fours with Walker, but musically seems to meander a bit. Walker plays some fine acoustic slide on I Got What You Need, a country blues by him and Robilliard, while Keep on Believin’, is a soulful ballad with a backing vocal chorus. 100% More Man, is a driving slow blues similar melodically to Elmore’s Twelve Year Old Boy, with plenty of driving slide, while Walker plays some high-note harmonica on Sugar Mama, with some nice accompaniment from the band (Katz’s piano is very solid here). This is quite an enjoyable recording as Walker sounds quite good here, although some of the performances meander a bit and some editing would have kept the performances more focused. Still, it is a very good recording, although not one of Walker’s best.

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