Joe Louis Walker: triumphant on land and sea
Blues Anarchy On the High Seas
By David McGee
LIVE ON THE LEGENDARY RHYTHM & BLUES CRUISE
Joe Louis Walker’s Blues Conspiracy
The legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise just got a bit more legendary with the release of this red-hot document of Joe Louis Walker’s Blues Conspiracy’s performance on board earlier this year. Herein Joe wastes no time with opening set niceties; in fact, the disc seems to begin in mid-set, as the first audio we hear is Joe introducing one of many special guests to his set, keyboardist Mike Finnigan, who promptly injects some tasty runs on the 88s into a steady rolling version of “Slow Down GTO,” a mating of blues energy to a classic car and classic car song, with appropriate power shifting into overdrive by Walker’s own wailing, roaring guitar embellishments, in addition to his powerful, gut-busting vocal. (You don’t even have to listen close to hear the clever interpolations of “Blues In the Night” and “Jingle Bell Rock” in the six-string discourse in the song’s last minute and a half or so, these kind of left-field quotes being something of a trademark of the Blues Conspiracy’s redoubtable six-string master, Lynwood Taylor. Nicely done.) Joe brings “Slow Down GTO” to a soothing, mellow close, the better to insinuate Johnny Winter into “Ain’t That Cold.” The respite was necessary, because Winter came on drinkin’ TNT and smokin’ dynamite (thank you Buddy Guy and Junior Wells), slicing and dicing his way into the mix with impunity. At least a couple of generations have grown up having no idea how startling and aggressive the young Johnny Winter was, but his razor-edged, punishing solos here hearken back to the summer of his youth, when the brute physicality of his steely sound had even blues veterans agog. He’s so powerful a presence on “Ain’t That Cold” that you almost forget how Walker opens the song with a rich, emotional vocal, one of his best and most memorable of the set in its bemoaning of hard times all around. Hard to follow the cataclysmic power of Winter’s and Walker’s set-to on “Ain’t That Cold,” but the assembled blues pros manage to climb the mountain again on the gospel-infused blues tearjerker, “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” with Mike Finnigan joining the fray on keyboard along with soul vocalist supreme Curtis Salgado. Walker, Finnigan and Salgado each take a gritty, testifying turn at a verse, with one foot in the pulpit, the other in the juke joint, then harmonizing like the Impressions to take it all home. A genuine blues raveup follows, “Eyes Like a Cat,” with Walker joined by a formidable foursome of Tommy Castro, Tom Poole, Keith Crossan and, absolutely tearing it up on saxophone, Deanna Bogart. Along with Walker’s own band, this quartet romps and stomps through the exuberant jump blues—Poole has a terrific, multi-textured trumpet solo here—and Walker delivers a muscular vocal worthy of one Big Joe Turner in both heft and humor. The Rhythm & Blues Cruise is not necessarily the place for a reflective moment, but Joe Louis incorporates one into the proceedings, when he brings on Canadian blues legend Watermelon Slim to add some chromatic harp filigree, alternately howling and soothing, while Walker tears into a wild-eyed solo full of fiery, cascading flurries of notes and tortured, single-string wailing, all a setup for his own forceful, pleading vocal.
Joe Louis Walker, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin,’ live at the 2009 North Atlantic Blues Festival, Rockland, Maine. Lynwood Taylor of the Blues Conspiracy is on second guitar.
This is the way it goes on the cruise set. Guests come in and scald their moment, you think it can’t get any better, and then it does. Duke Robillard and Todd Sharpville join in a rousing stomp, “Tell Me Why,” and Robillard once again reminds everyone of how little competition he has when he digs into a typically tasty, economical but energized solo that dips and curls around the melody but always winds up where it should be, with Walker adding an affecting Stevie Ray-styled vocal ahead of Sharpville’s own stinging guitar retort. Finally, things come to a medium-cool close with a measured take on “747” with none other than Paul Nelson, Tab Benoit and Mitch Woods sitting in and slowing building up a head of steam on their respective instruments, driven relentlessly forward by Walker’s furious attack and throaty declaiming. Those who weren’t on the cruise will lament what they missed by not seeing all these displays up close and personal, but the emotional wallop of the live performances has been faithfully transferred to disc. And until the next ship sets sail, keep an eye out for Joe Louis in your town, since he vows to “play everywhere, all the time, as often as I possibly can.” Any show of his that even approximates the best moments on the R&B Cruise will be one of the best you’ve experienced.