One of my most pleasing “discoveries” since taking a serious interest in blues music has been Joe Louis Walker. After taking a complete punt on his album Hornet’s Nest a couple of years back, I picked up on earlier stuff like Witness To The Blues and Between A Rock And The Blues. The latter in particular has become a personal favourite, ranging across a number of blues styles and marking Walker out as a key inheritor of the electric blues tradition. Not blues rock, please note. Though Joe can certainly rock, to these ears he’s part of that more classic blues lineage for which Buddy Guy is now “father of the house’, as it were.
So with Joe about to head over to the UK and Europe for a series of gigs in the wake of his latest album Everybody Wants A Piece, it was great to get the opportunity to chuck a few questions his way, and see what he made of them. First up was the involvement of Paul Nelson in the album, as producer. How had that come about, and what did he bring to the album?
“I met Paul through Johnny Winter. Paul was his guitarist, producer, and best friend. He'd worked wonders bringing Johnny back to the stature he so very much deserved to be at. So Paul and I have been working together in that spirit also. He was instrumental in the sound and cohesiveness of the cd. Being a guitar player, he knows instinctively how a guitar player wants to sound - as well as playing on the cd, producing, and contributing positivity. And on top of all that he's a Grammy winner, last year, for producing Johnny Winter’s last cd Step Back.”
|Joe Louis Walker - an innovator in a classic tradition
Pic by Michael Weintraub
Some of the guitar tones and effects Joe contrives on Everybody Wants A Piece, on tracks like ‘Black and Blue’, ‘Gospel Blues’, and ‘Wade In The Water’, are strikingly – and wittily - out of the ordinary. There’s wacky sounding wah-wah, and brittle sounding tones with very little decay. Not being a guitarist myself, they’re a mystery to me –so how did he do it?
“It's some kind of crazy toys Jim Dunlop sent me,” he says. “They've got some interesting effects that are fun and get the listeners attention. I'm not so much a traditionalist, so I've no problem trying new sounds. But it's not my complete sound. I've been known to push the envelope a bit.”
For me one of the cornerstones of the new album is the Danny Kirwan song ‘One Sunny Day’, which is built on a big, simple, strong figure around which Walker weaves a swathe of blistering guitar licks. I wondered how he’d come across the song, and what drew him to it as a cover?
“I’m a big fan of the original Fleetwood Mac,” says Joe. “The guitarists in the original lineup are incredible. ‘One Sunny Day’ is a song I was aware of - it’s a great guitar riff song, something the original Fleetwood Mac were very good at. Being a big Danny Kirwan and Peter Green fan, it was a good feeling to give a nod to them.
‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, starts off reflecting its gospel roots, but then part way through seamlessly drifts into a heavy funk feel. Was that a natural progression to make, I wondered, or was it a novel kind of arrangement?
“I’d recorded a similar version years ago. I felt if I did that song, I'd do it my way. So that was the way I was feeling at the time. I hope it reached people. If I do a cover, or traditional song, I feel it's important that I put my stamp on it.”
Given that Walker has played with a plethora of famous blues performers over the years, I wondered who the big influences were on his guitar playing.
“I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area,” he observes, “and around there we had the Fillmore Auditorium, the Avalon Ballroom, FM radio and so on - it was fertile for ALL kinds of music. But when I was coming up there was a rediscovery of the old guys who wrote the blueprint for generations of musicians to come. So I got to play, perform and meet quite a few of the guys I'd heard only on record. Like . . . John Lee and Earl Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Freddy, BB and Albert King, and and many more. That was my education, and it influenced me quite a bit.”
One of the things I most like about Walker’s albums is the variety of styles he explores. So I asked him if this sense of range is something that’s important to him – and if there are particular songwriters who have attracted him to different styles?
“I try to stay true to my self. In the context that I don't want to sound like anyone, or make a living regurgitating old warhorse material that may be a crowd pleaser, or that’s been done over and over. I appreciate that people want a familiar song or tune, but I don't feel I can re-do ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and it'll give people a picture of where I'm at as an artist. It only proves I'm a good interpreter of other peoples music. So I try to take the audience on a journey of my musical world.
“As for songwriters, I like everyone from Muddy Waters, to John Lennon. As long as the music and artist, are for real, and I feel what they're putting forth.”
With Walker’s extensive CV of past collaborations, I suggest to him that he must have had some great jam sessions in his time. His response serves to underline both his connection with blues tradition and with artists pushing boundaries.
“Jamming with people Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Snooky,Pryor, Otis Rush, Mike Bloomfield, Robert Lockwood, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Buddy Miles and others has been an education.”
What about people you’d really like to jam with, that you haven’t done so far? That’s a question that produces a really unexpected answer.
“I'd like to jam with Yousou N’dour and Keith Richards at the same time - and I'd call the tune, because they're both versatile groundbreaking musicians. I think we could come up with some unique stuff!”
Well versed in blues tradition, but modern and progressive at the same time – that kind of sums up what Joe Louise Walker brings to the party.
Joe Louis Walker is playing the following European dates in June:
June 9 – Dingwall’s, London
June 10 – Worthing Piers Southern Pavilion, Worthing
June 11 – The Brook, Southampton
June 12 – The Globe, Cardiff
June 13 – The Convent, Stroud
June 16 - The New Morning, Paris
June 17 – Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval, Hauterives, France
June 20 – Z-7, Pratteln, Switzerland