october 2008

Joe Louis Walker
Stony Plain

On Witness to the Blues, Joe Louis Walker has topped himself, and that's saying something. With an able assistant from producer/guitarist Duke Robillard, Walker fashions an invigorating jaunt into blues country, working that Memphis-Muscle Shoals-Clarksdale axis for all it's worth with a horn-bolstered band, a variety of guitars at his disposal and a stirring collection of songs, more than half of which he penned, ranging from mean woman blues to gospel-rooted pleas.

History, personal and otherwise, runs rampant on these tracks: check out the Sly Stone "Take You Higher" horn quotes energizing the album opener, "It's a Shame"; the rousing rockabilly foundation of his own "Midnight Train," which blends the doghouse bass and fierce rhythm of Elvis Presley's Sun side with the grit and urgency of Junior Parker's original Sun recording, and even references a memorable lyric from the source song at the end; and twice on the record he makes reference to being "100 percent more man" (including in a grinding, wailing blues near the end titled, yes, "100% More Man," concerning a young woman who can't be bothered with his advances), perhaps a testosterone reduction in deference to the late Bo Diddley, who famously boasted of being "500 percent more man." Well, Joe Louis need bow to no man when it comes to proving his masculinity quotient. He proves here that he can mess up, make up, seduce and testify with the best of the breed. One of the compelling, tender moments comes in his reprise of the Peggy Scott/Jo Jo Benson salacious classic, "Lover's Holiday," with Walker and Shemekia Copeland engaging in a sultry duet reminiscent of heated couplings on disc by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, an impression reinforced by the funky Stax-style backing keyed by a scratchy guitar and Bruce Katz's voluble organ support (a symbolic tipping of the hat to the three Walker albums co-produced with Steve Cropper?). Adding depth to the subject matter is Walker's powerful, churning "Witness," a Muscle Shoals-styled mussing of the gospel/soul boundary line in which he reflects on the numbing number of lost, lonely, needy souls he sees all around him, even while admitting to personal spiritual failings en route to "my way back home." Describing his quest in anguished detail, Walker shouts an aggrieved testimony over a rich musical backdrop percolating along at a steady, midtempo march but escalating in intensity as the song evolves, culminating in a grand explosion of organ, piano, guitar and thunderous drums as Walker howls, "Raise up! Raise up!" in exhorting his listeners to reach out to the less fortunate among them, an appeal as inspiring as Springsteen's "Rise up! Rise up!" in "The Rising," and a forceful reminder to boot of Walker's deep roots in gospel music as a former member of The Spiritual Corinthians. Echoes of Jimmy Hughes permeate "Keep On Believin'," which in title and style comes out of the church and heads for secular ground (it's a man's vow to stay true to a woman whose feelings for him are uncertain), again with Katz's emotive organ dominating the feel of the track and Walker injecting trebly, anxious guitar lines and being shadowed vocally by an insistent chorus in call-and-response mode. It's always a treat to hear JLW do an acoustic number, and this album's suggestive Delta blues, "I Got What You Need," is a righteous, rhythmic workout between the artist and his producer, playing in tandem and trading bristling solos, Walker on slide, Robillard picking, and JLW expressing to his reluctant paramour his desire to be "your 100 percent man," a theme fully developed two songs later.

Witness To The Blues is indeed what its title claims-an overview of the blues in various manifestations and via the modes of expression common to specific topographies of the music. It's also the latest in a heartening number of terrific new albums by blues veterans over the past two years, including those by Nappy Brown, Koko Taylor, B.B. King (see review in this issue), Buddy Guy (see review in last month's issue) and Irma Thomas. And it's a heck of a statement by a blues master who awaits the broad mainstream acclaim he deserves. That he keeps on believin' is our gain. —David McGee

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