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.
For a man who’s met or played with nearly every modern blues legend, Joe Louis Walker is remarkably humble. Growing up in San Francisco in a time when the men we now know as legends were reaching the height of their prowess and popularity, Walker found himself surrounded by people who would make most of us star-stricken and unable to speak complete sentences, much less play fluid, soulful guitar licks that could give many a blues legend a run for his money.
The challenge in interviewing someone with such a storied career and impressive resume (23 albums, four Blues Music Awards) is trying to find time to talk about it all within the confines of a 20-minute conversation. We’re talking about a man who shared a house with Michael Bloomfield; who’s played with Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Ike Turner, Albert King, Freddy King, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many others.
Yet, as you talk to Walker about his career and his friends, he’s not dropping names. The way he talks about playing with some of these people is like the way I tell people about my last road trip with my friends: this is what we did; this is who was there; and this is what it meant to me. No pretention, no sense that he’s trying to impress anyone – it just is what it is.
In the brief time we had to talk, there just wasn’t enough time to find out about all of his experiences with blues royalty and give him enough time to talk about his own body of work, including his latest album, “Hellfire,” his new relationship with Alligator Records, where his music comes from and, most importantly, where it’s going:
Q: You’ve got a big new deal with Alligator Records now.
A: Yeah, I’m on Alligator now, and it seems to be working out for both of us.
Q: This is kind of a big deal. So how did it come about that you signed with Alligator?
A: Well, you know, I feel the same [laughs]. It’s a pleasure. They’re working very hard, and we’re working very hard, and it opened some doors that we haven’t had open in a while. It’s a good fit. It’s a good fit, and so far so good.
Q: So when did this deal come about? Was that last fall?
A: I signed with Alligator at the beginning of the year, maybe the end of last year. Me, my wife and my manager all paid for this record, and we shopped it around, and Alligator seemed to be the most likely home for us, and it’s sort of proven out to be true. I’m very happy, and I hope that they are, too.
Q: I didn’t realize that you’d funded this yourself and then shopped it around.
A: Oh yeah.
Q: I read that you worked with Tom Hambridge on this album.
A: Yes, yes, and I met Tom through Murali Coryell, Larry Coryell’s son. I played on Murali’s record [also produced by Tom Hambridge], and we got together. One thing lead to another, and we started working together ourselves.
In essence, bringing blues legend Joe Louis Walker and his trio into the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs was a historical event. But adding Murali Coryell as the second lead guitarist in the band made it monumental.
The fledgling Capital Region Blues Network helped get the word out, and the Parting Glass was comfortably packed with fans. There on the floor by the drummer was a two-page “set list” – really just a pick-n’-choose guide of more than 50 songs culled from the 21 albums that Walker has released over the course of the past 25 years.
From the first note, the 61-year-old Walker’s vocals and guitar pyrotechnics went into over-drive, as he hit the ball out of the park with relentlessly soulful blues runs and emotional depth.
He was born on Christmas Day of 1949 in San Francisco, where he grew up, embracing the guitar at age 14, and digging into the blues as well as the psychedelic rock scene that surrounded him there. He was roommates with the great Michael Bloomfield, and he learned even more lessons in fretboard mastery first-hand from Jimi Hendrix, as well as the Grateful Dead. And over the years, Walker has worked with some of the finest, most versatile musicians ever to strap on a guitar – everyone from Scotty Moore to Steve Cropper.