The multiple-award winning, Bay area, electric-blues guitarist and Blues Hall of Fame inductee JOE LOUIS WALKER arrived in London this week, for a rare visit, as part of a London Blues Festival, held at the iconic 100 Club. The London Blues Week featured performances by Walker, Bernie Marsden, Stan Webb, The Climax Blues Band and many others.
Walker began his musical career in 1964, and in those early years the prodigy played with almost all the luminaries in the field: John Lee Hooker, J.J. Malone, Buddy Miles, Muddy Waters, and of course Jimi Hendrix. He had a very close friendship with blues composer and guitarist Mike Bloomfield. In fact, it was Bloomfield’s premature death that diverted a Walker away (temporarily) from a blues life: he graduated in Music and English and joined a Gospel quartet.
His 2015 album Everybody Wants a Piece was nominated for a Grammy.
“London how are you? We came to play…”announced Joe, dressed in neat black shirt, with a huge cross around his neck. The first thing he did was introduce his talented band, a nice touch, and this against an evolving musical backdrop that sounded similar to the rousing vibes of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” although it actually developed into “I’m not Messin’ Around.”
So we met the swishy haired Lenny Bradford on bass, the award winning keyboards player Steve Watts on organ, and the incredible drummer/vocalist Byron Cage on drums. And we were immediately treated to a set of neat, chatty ivories, with smooth sweeps, an agitated excitement of drums and some greasy rhythms.
“I may not be the world’s smartest guy…” sang the precocious JLW as the crowd waved, clapped and bounced along with enthusiasm. And, of course, it was not long before we witnessed the first sparkling bursts of perceptive guitar, with sharp punctures of acidity and howls of pain between the long, hard moans.
“Ten years I was selling Gospel…” he told the London audience.
It was after a performance, in 1985, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, that he became inspired to return to his blues roots and to form the Bosstalkers.
“I worked with the The Jordanaires, who managed to get everybody else major hits… well I’m still waiting for mine…” he told us. Thus, he played the Jesse Stone classic “Don’t Let Go” [ the first hit for Roy Hamilton.] It was one of several fine rock ‘n’ roll be-bop-baby moments in the concert, with rat-a-tat drums, golden vocals and chipper keys.
Gospel, of course, figured large in the set. But even the most spiritual numbers were brightly trimmed, beautifully embellished, and accompanied by sleazy keys and muscular bass, and produced with the same kind of exotic guitar imagination that we’d expect from a product of the countercultural hip-era that brought us Purple Haze.
So even when we exclaiming the love of Jesus, this show didn’t sound like an assembly meeting at the Calvary Temple in Greene County, but more like a jam-night with pals at a smoke-filled, out-of-town barrel-house. And Walker didn’t mind experimenting with feedback and distortion either, even on the hymns, adding flavour and opacity to the pieces.
“I done more than a few compilations over the years...” Walker told the crowd. “But none I liked more than the Blues White Album.” This was a blues tribute to the Beatles’ White album, issued in 2002. Most rock ‘n’ blues aficionados consider the superlative cut on that particular disc to be Joe Louis Walker’s leisurely, heartfelt and remarkable grasp of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
At the 100 Club, his warm voice and liquid guitar lamented together in an elegant embrace, bringing to the surface the subterranean currents of the tribulation within the song. And if that’s not blues, what is it? This was the highlight of an extraordinary show, full of charm and incredible balance, dexterity and natural fluidity. The song ended with a Little Wing flourish.
This concert was for blues fans who want more than their 12 bars. They seek a slice of rockabilly, a smattering of jazz, and perhaps some fancy pop. So, at times, this was funky, often barnstorming, and always with hotter-than-hot guitar-work (reminiscent of Peter Green’s best days), a rip-roaring success.
Words: © Neil Mach
Pictures: © Laurence Harvey