LIVE: Joe Louis Walker @ Empire State Plaza at The Egg, 7/19/17
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Richard Brody
Joe Louis Walker and his three-piece band played an exceptional 65-minute set of original blues and eclectic covers as part of the free Made in the Shade of The Egg Wednesday lunchtime series on the Empire State Plaza.
An award-winning bluesman who has been based in the Northeast for over a decade, Walker soaked up the diverse sounds of blues, soul, gospel and rock in the Bay Area in the late 1960s. Perhaps being a teenager in that era explains why he sings and plays with the vigor and joy of someone half his age – he got to see and meet some of the best. Not to mention, Walker is one of the most prolific and gifted songwriters, too.
Impressed with the big turnout, Walker dedicated his opening instrumental “Lena” to his daughter, displaying masterful use of feedback, tempo shifts and tasty chicken-picked solos. Solomon Burke’s 1964 civil rights anthem, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” was rousing; the band sang the chorus with gusto, and Walker even slyly interpolated the lyrics from The Romantics’ “What I Like about You” at one point before closing out with quick guitar nods to The Yardbirds and The Who.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” caught many off-guard, including this reviewer who first saw Walker in London in 1988, but it was a smoldering performance that included a mid-song mash-up of riffs from Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and a closing nod to the introduction of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” Shifting gears, “Young Girls Blues,” from the Grammy-nominated Everybody Wants a Piece, had a strong Chicago blues feel, especially in the piano solos and Walker’s Earl Hooker-inspired slide work at the end.
Throughout his several decades, Walker has embraced gospel with fervor. In fact, for a decade prior to his first album, 1986’s Cold Is the Night, that is what he sang exclusively with the Spiritual Corinthians after he had beaten a drug addiction that would later claim his close friend, Michael Bloomfield. “Wade in the Water,” introduced with a shout-out to the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe, had grit and swing, and to Walker’s delight, many in the audience found themselves singing and clapping along. “I’m a Soldier for Jesus on the Front Line”, a Walker original that has appeared on two of his studio albums, expressed gratitude in spiritual victory. Sounding like a preacher with slide guitar in hand, Walker testified:
“I want everybody who can hear my voice
To put your hands on the radio
I’m a soldier for Jesus on the front line
I’m a soldier for Jesus fighting the devil all the time”
After putting a capo on his fretboard, Walker looked over to bassist Lenny “LB” Bradford, and with a quick nod launched into a jaw-dropping, finger-picked take of Magic Sam’s instrumental “Looking Good,” blurring the lines between rhythm and lead while rocking like a locomotive down the track. “Do You Love Me?,” from 2004’s New Direction, mixed soul and rock seamlessly, with Walker whooping and hollering like Little Richard after a generous solo excursion.
While blues artists have often celebrated inebriation in their songs, Walker’s sobering yet wry message to the audience in closing out the lunch hour set – “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” from 2012’s Hellfire – was to think about safety first.
“I went and looked at my car, my car looked back to me. I said, ‘We can’t go nowhere, the bartender’s got my keys! ‘You might’ve driven drunk out of here before, but I ain’t gonna let you do it anymore. ‘Cause you’re too drunk to drive drunk this time. You’re too drunk to drive drunk this time. I know you might have done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving out of here like this no more.”
Evidently, the strong message and deft musicianship (at one point, Walker’s stream of consciousness playing alluded to Little Richard’s “Lucille,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” and The Beatles’ “Day Tripper”) got through – the crowd gave Walker and his band a
Afterwards, Walker chatted with long-time fans and newbies alike for well over an hour. For this reviewer, the chance to hear Joe reminisce vividly about Magic Sam, Johnny Winter, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin, John Lee Hooker, Lurrie Bell and The Holmes Brothers was like hearing a second set.
JOE LOUIS WALKER SET LIST
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (Solomon Burke)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles)
Young Girls Blues
Wade in the Water (traditional)
I’m a Soldier for Jesus on the Front Line
Looking Good (Magic Sam)
Do You Love Me?
Too Drunk to Drive Drunk
UPCOMING: The Made in the Shade of The Egg concert series continues on the Empire State Plaza at 12noon on Wednesday (August 9) with New Orleans’ forward-thinking brass band, the Soul Rebels. Admission is free.