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Joe Louis Walker – Between A Rock And The Blues

Stony Plain Records

12 tracks; 63.15 minutes

Joe Louis Walker is one of the busiest men in the blues, with a very substantial catalogue of CDs over more than 20 years. Joe plays a lot and is a prolific producer of CDs, and I imagine that most blues fans will own one or more of them. So why buy this one?

Well, let’s start with the musicians involved in the project. Produced by Duke Robillard, the core band is Bruce Katz on keys, Jesse Williams on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums, plus a horn section of Doug “Mr Low” James on sax and Carl Queforth on trombone, plus Sugar Ray Norcia on harp on one track, all ex-Roomful of Blues. Quite a lineup! On two tracks (produced by Kevin Eubanks) Joe uses his touring band of Henry Oden on bass, Jeff Minnieweather on drums and Ellis Blacknell on keys, plus Kevin Eubanks on rhythm guitar.

Then there are the songs which cover a good range of styles and sounds. The opener “I’m Tide” is an up-tempo piece with two great short solos by Joe. A song about the down side of modern life, it has a nomination for song of the year at the BMAs in May. Track 2 is “Eyes Like A Cat” by Travis Phillips, more of a jump style tune which brings the horns into focus. “Black Widow Spider” is a bouncy autobiographical piece about a relationship that did not make the course, with good saxophone from Doug James.

Tracks 4 and 6 are the Kevin Eubanks produced pieces. “If There’s A Heaven” with its repeated reference to “doing some time in the county jail” reminds one lyrically of the old “County Jail Blues”, but is more of a driving funk piece, with slashing slide guitar. “I’ve Been Down” is also upbeat, with a piano motif underscoring the vocal all the way though the song, belying the rather downbeat lyrics – “I’ve been down so long, good luck never crossed my mind”. The solo from Joe is very rocky and these two tracks are so clearly from a different source to the rest of the album, it made me wonder why Joe decided to include them - perhaps for additional variety?

“Way Too Expensive” is a song by Murali Coyell, son of jazz guitarist Larry, and comments on the current economic situation that many find themselves in. Musically it’s quite jazzy, with a stop/go rhythm punctuated by the horns and with a central solo from Joe that has more than a touch of BB King about it.

After that trio of tunes “Prisoner of Mercy” goes back to a slower pace. Bruce Katz takes the main solo on piano, with Joe playing sympathetically behind him. Some frenetic chording and use of the whammy bar see the tune out. That is the last of Joe’s own tunes and the remaining five tunes come from five different authors. Track 8 is entitled “Hallways” written by Bay area guitarist Steve Hall. It’s a classic blues ballad and provides what for me was Joe’s best vocal on the set. Another fine piano solo precedes some relaxed picking in the middle of this extended (7.34) tune. Joe’s playing here is delightful, taking the solo higher and higher emotionally but never losing the melody or sacrificing the tune for guitar effects.

“Tell Me Why” is a Duke Robillard tune and the producer makes an appearance on guitar. Lots of slide here and more great piano from Katz. I assume that the later solo is Duke’s. Next up is a cover of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack”, done fairly straight, rolling piano underpinning the sad tale of woe of the gambler who has lost all on the blackjack table. Joe’s voice here seems to be straining to make the notes, but the ensemble playing is superb. “Big Fine Woman” is a Roy Gaines song which features a lot of wah-wah from Joe and the CD concludes with “Send You Back” which sees Joe pick up his acoustic guitar for a back porch duo with Sugar Ray Norcia’s harp on a tune by Fat Harry Dorth from Holland. It offers a further variation and a nice, gentle finish to the album.
Overall this is a good CD which grew on me as I listened to it a few times. It has a range of styles and makes a strong follow-up to the very successful “Witness to the Blues”, Joe’s first for Stony Plain. Joe plays a wide range of styles and gets superb backing from a crack band. Joe’s voice (never his strongest suit) struggles at times, but his playing is always strong and the CD is well worth investigating.

Readers will be keen to know that Joe recorded all his sets on the recent Blues Cruise and will be issuing a new live CD from those recordings. He jammed with practically everyone on the boat so the result should be interesting as a follow-up to this CD. No sign of the prolific JLW slackening off the pace!.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music. He has just returned from his first Legendary Blues Cruise.

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