Friday, July 3, 2020

Joe Louis Walker - Blues Comin' On

All the rage these days aren’t they, these guest artist album collaborations?  Sometimes I wonder whether there’s much purpose to them, or much clarity of direction.  But it has to be said that recent examples from Mike Zito – in tribute to Chuck Berry – and Dion have certainly cut the mustard.  And now this outing from Joe Louis Walker can be added to that list.

To my mind, Walker is one of the leading bluesmen of our times, an inventive guitarist and songwriter, and with a distinctive, engaging vocal style.  With Blues Comin' On he also demonstrates that he’s an excellent ringmaster, making a satisfyingly coherent album out of a range of different guests and songs from a variety of writers.

Joe Louis Walker - sho' got the blues!
Pic by Arnie Goodman
The title track is a good example of the blend of cool and muscle that’s on offer.  A first verse that combines steely acoustic guitar strumming with a top drawer drawling vocal from Dion – who co-wrote the tune with Mike Acqualina – lulls you into a false sense of security, before electric guitar, piano, drums and guttural bass kick in to generate a big fat groove.  And then further down the line Eric Gales weighs in with a razor-wire solo, while JLW gets down to some whoopin’ an’ hollerin’.  By the time they’re done, after nearly six minutes, it’s a pummelling world away from its beguiling beginning.
Soulful sounds also play a big part in the album though.  Carla Cooke, daughter of Sam, guests on two tracks to marvellous effect.  ‘Someday, Someway’ is a sweet soul duet, on which Cooke makes like Minnie Riperton with some beautiful, pure falsetto singing, echoed by some lovely harp playing from Lee Oskar (once upon a time of War, in cahoots with Eric Burdon).  ‘Awake Me, Shake Me’ is a different kind of soulful, with a sparkling piano intro before La Cooke dips in, this time in a lower, cooler pitch.  Walker shows off his way with a soulful vocal, and the pair turn out some excellent harmonising, while Walker evokes the Commodores with some jazzy guitar. The song drifts from an idyllic, dream-like awakening into some intense guitar and moaning vocals that suggest a couple having woken up and, er, shaken’n’stirred each other.  And just to show that Walker doesn’t need Cooke in order to do soulful, Mitch Ryder turns up on ‘Come Back Home’, which bears little resemblance to the bar-room rock’n’roll of ‘Devil With The Blue Dress’, and a whole lot more like a slice of Southern soul-blues that breezed out Memphis in the mid-Sixties.

But there’s funkiness abroad too, most energetically on ‘The Thang’, a self-penned dance track that promotes “wiggling where you stand”, and is as good an invitation to shake yer booty as I’ve heard in a while.  More than that though, it side-slips into Hendrix-land, with some wacko guitar duelling between Walker and Jesse Johnson of The Time, before giving a deep bow in the direction of ‘Still Raining Still Dreaming’.  And Bobby Rush’s ‘Bowlegged Woman’ is given a loosely funky blues treatment, as Walker asserts that “We go hand in hand, like a bowlegged woman and a knock-kneed man”, while piercing guitar work comes courtesy of Waddy Wachtel – a denizen of the West Coast who's played with everyone under the sun, co-writing ‘Werewolves Of London’ along the way.

And there’s still room for plenty more. There’s the opener ‘Feed The Poor’ for a start, a co-write with Mick Jagger’s son Gabriel that’s soulful but gritty, with a fuzzy riff that gets more assertive as the song progresses.  There’s the semi-acoustic bar-room blues of ‘Old Time Used To Be’, a dance tune for warm summer nights with your baby, with plenty of tootling harp from John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful and stinging slide guitar from the ubiquitous Keb’ Mo’.  There’s the simple gospel fun of ‘Lonely Weekends’, and the catchy pop of ‘Seven More Years’, which evokes The Pretenders in their heyday, and features delightful, shimmering lead guitar from Albert Lee, as well as great drumming from Byron Cage.

Walker even gets into garage rock mode with the closing cover of Love’s ‘7 & 7 Is’, all urgency over scattergun drum rhythms, with surf guitar-like injections from Arlen Roth, before downshifting sharply into a blast of harmonica from Charlie Harper of the UK Subs (of all people), and a crunching mid-paced guitar solo.

With 12 tracks that all do more than stand up to scrutiny, Blues Comin' On is sure as hell good value for money.  More than that, it reinforces my view that while there may be bigger blues names out there, Joe Louis Walker is one of the very best around.  And if you aren’t familiar with him, you need to put that right - now.

Blues Comin' On was released on Cleopatra Blues on 26 June.

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