Joe Louis Walker,
Between a Rock & the Blues
(Stony Plain, 2009)

You could say that B.B. King and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker invented modern electric blues, a big-city sound in which the Mississippi Delta -- which continued to inform such contemporaries as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf -- was a very distant echo. A whole lot of memorable music, from Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Little Milton and others, followed. So, unfortunately, have many generic-sounding recordings. To my hearing, the latter have the resonance more of roots rock (or somebody's idea of it) than of real blues; "blues rock" strikes me as -- with, inevitably, some worthy exceptions -- effectively rock, incidentally blues. The standard complaint, fair or unfair but hardly mine alone, is that there's more hand -- the players are invariably adept at their instruments -- than heart in this approach.

That said, Between a Rock & the Blues, produced by the hard-working, ever-reliable Duke Robillard (whose most recent CD I reviewed here on 4 July 2009), is as electric and modern as a blues disc can be, and a stunner. For once, "masterpiece" -- the word is used on the back cover -- falls short of hyperbole. The record has almost hypnotic powers. I have listened to it repeatedly, each time in some state of awed consciousness.

Joe Louis Walker (no relation to T-Bone as far as I know) first recorded in 1986, and this is his 20th album. Though I know his early work, I lost track of him in the interim. Picking up on him in 2009, I encounter a major blues artist at the peak of his powers. Because race is so much a part of any discussion of blues' history and higher meaning, it is necessary to note here that Walker is an African-American who has lived long enough (born in 1949) to have grown up in blues culture, in other words at a time when blues was not -- as it has been for a long time now -- at the far margins of black life and entertainment. Walker seems to have heard, seen or known just about every significant African-American vernacular and popular musician of the mid- to latter-20th century. In addition he was close friends with the late Mike Bloomfield, who did as much as anyone (next, anyway, to the early Rolling Stones) to introduce electric blues to a whole generation of white young people.

Between a Rock & the Blues fuses gospel, r&b, soul and (yes) rock, but it is at its essence a blues record -- thundering and scorching, yes, but never bombastic. Afire with emotion, the songs, in common with all true blues, deliver convincingly lived-in storytelling. "Black Widow Spider" boasts a particularly compelling narrative and a terrific blues metaphor like they used to. Just as gripping, "If There's a Heaven," written by Walker with Kevin Eubanks and Joe Russo, is a confession of sin by a petty criminal who yet strives to commit good. It's hard to believe psychological and spiritual complexity of this kind could be compacted into a song, even one that clocks in at 6:41, but it's considerably more interesting than most gospel songs.

Social commentary drives "I'm Tide" -- meaning "tired" of a whole lot of aggravations of modern life; Walker is so exhausted that he can't even manage that second syllable -- and Murali Coryell's "Way Too Expensive," about economic inequity; there's also a richly earned dig at our most recent ex-president.

With electric guitar, slide and 12-string, Walker fronts a band which hits hard and lands every punch. Pleasingly, though, the album closes on a whole other note with "Send You Back," a quiet acoustic-guitar/harmonica country blues. Walker is fluent in all the blues languages.

review by
Jerome Clark

6 February 2010

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