Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Eric Gleason
Had it really been 17 years? Not only were die-hard blues fans wondering that, but even Joe Louis Walker, the headliner himself exclaimed that extraordinary fact incredulously during the second song of the night at Pauly’s Hotel, a rollicking take on “Let’s Have a Natural Ball.”
Walker had been close all those years, with occasional shows in Saratoga Springs (like last May at the Parting Glass) and a surprise appearance last year at The Egg with Buddy Guy. The last time he had played Pauly’s, Walker invited Scotty Mac, a talented local blues player up to the stage for a full-throttle take on Albert Collins’ instrumental “Don’t Lose Your Cool.”
Scotty Mac was not in attendance last Friday night, no doubt preparing for his long-awaited reunion gig with the Rockin’ Bonnevilles (Friday, May 11 at Pauly’s), but a strong contingent of patrons saw two extraordinary sets by Walker and his talented band.
Taking the stage shortly after 9pm, the award-winning Walker opened with the wry yet sobering roadhouse blues message of “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk This Time” from his acclaimed new album “Hellfire” on Alligator Records. Following it with T-Bone Walker’s “Let’s Have a Natural Ball” was clever, as if to say to the listener, put down your drink, grab a dance partner and dig these swinging blues for awhile. That proved to be an offer few could resist, especially since Walker was throwing down some tasty solos with Murali Coryell, whose guitar playing was playful and inventive, too. “In the Morning,” the title track to a 2002 release on Telarc, featured a soulful cadence by bassist Lenny Bradford and drummer Andy Greene, a perfect foundation for Walker’s soulful vocals and the harmonies of the band.
Shifting over to slide guitar, Walker’s take on “Tell Me Why” from 2009’s “Between a Rock and the Blues” was a real ear-opener. Walker’s attack and tone, honed in his early years of seeing Earl Hooker and Mike Bloomfield play on the West Coast, made one marvel, and Coryell was in fine form, too, replying with staccato phrases from his polka-dot Buddy Guy-edition Strat. The two virtuosos stretched out the song, and by the last verse, Walker’s smile was indelible. “I Won’t Do That” from his recent album examined all the temptations that life can throw at a man, but Walker sang of fidelity and sounded like he was playing three guitars at once. It was the perfect warm-up to the new “Soldier for Jesus,” a wonderful gospel blues featuring Walker’s stunning slide work and the exhortations of vocalist/percussionist Bertha Blades that Rev. Gary Davis or Son House would have loved, with the five-piece band sounding like a full choir in the 150-year-old bar.
Murali Coryell got the spotlight for two excellent songs from his 2009 album “Sugar Lips” – “Minor Funk” and “I Could’ve Had You.” In the former, Coryell and Walker traded spirited vocals and solos; the latter was a fine, understated late-night groove about reflecting upon the directions life can take. Reflecting the communal bond this talented band has, Bertha Blades stepped up to the microphone for a rocking take on Lazy Lester’s swamp classic “Sugar-Coated Love,” which drew a crowd of dancers up to the edge of the stage.
After intermission, Walker and company hit the stage on all cylinders again, tearing into “Eyes Like a Cat” (a song some may know from the Tailgators’ sets in the 1980s), offering up a down-home, Jimmy Reed-style “Ain’t That Cold?” that can be found Walker’s on recent live CD “Blues Conspiracy.” “Ride All Night” rocked like Bobby Womack sitting in with the Rolling Stones. Walker and Blades brought great vocal chemistry to “Lover’s Holiday” (from “A Rock and the Blues”), and kept the energy levels high by referencing the late Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” “Hellfire” delved into the struggle between good and evil, and it was all good, complete with a stunning wah-wah solo by Walker and the wallop of Greene’s drums. It takes special talent to take on O.V. Wright’s classic “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” but Walker, Blades and Coryell each took turns on the verses and the song resonated throughout the venue.
Blades would have made the late Etta James proud with a very funky, uptempo take of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”; her singing was spot on as the rhythm section hit the groove from the very first note. Sharing the wealth, a smiling Walker played some wonderful counterpoints to Coryell’s burning take of “Please, Please Baby.” (Coryell, moved by the response from the Albany crowd at the end of the song, paid tribute and gave heartfelt thanks to his friend, the late Ernie Williams).
With over a dozen albums in his career, Joe Louis Walker has plenty of songs to choose from on any given night, but his final selection at the end of the second set was truly out of left field in a good way, an extended call and response tour de force rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 “Like It This Way.” His rapport with Coryell was extraordinary, and just when one guitarist seemed to have played to his highest level the other played back with gusto as if to say, “Hey, we’re not done yet, brother!”
JOE LOUIS WALKER SET LIST
Too Drunk to Drive Drunk This Time
Let’s Have a Natural Ball
In the Morning
Tell Me Why
I Won’t Do That
Soldier For Jesus
I Could’ve Had You
Eyes Like a Cat
Ain’t That Cold?
Ride All Night
Lover’s Holiday > Everybody Needs Somebody to Love
You’re Gonna Make Me Cry
I Just Want to Make Love to You
Please, Please Baby
Like It This Way