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Music Review: Joe Louis Walker – Between A Rock And The Blues

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Joe Louis Walker has covered a lot of musical territory over the course of his career. He started out a bluesman in his native San Francisco, but the tragic death of his close friend Mike Bloomfield saw him turn to gospel music for several years before his eventual return to the blues.

Since then he’s retained a strong gospel thread throughout his music, dabbling in jazz and latin music along the way. For his 20th recording, and second outing for Stony Plain, he’s chosen to tread the territory between the blues and rock music, with somewhat mixed results.

Most of the tracks here were produced by Duke Robillard, and feature Duke’s working band, augmented by old friends from Roomful Of Blues. They’re as fine an outfit as any, able to swing nimbly and gracefully in almost any circumstance. Two tracks were produced and feature guitarist Kevin Eubanks, former Musical Director of The Tonight Show.

Despite the title, Walker dwells primarily on the blue side of the equation here, though there’s a driving energy and tougher edge to much of the material than most of his past work. “I’m Tied,” which kicks things off, is a hard-driving rocker that wears out its welcome before the song is done (even Walker is “tied [sic] of singing this song” before it’s done). But “Eyes Like A Cat,” powered by sprightly piano from Bruce Katz, swings hard, with nice saxophone from Doug James. “Black Widow Spider” delves into Walker’s gospel bag to excellent effect, but “If There’s A Heaven” (one of the Eubanks tracks) is plodding and, despite fervent vocals from Walker, becomes annoying long before its eventual fade-out.

“Way Too Expensive” is a fine ‘reverse shuffle,’ firmly in the blue end of the spectrum, but “I’ve Been Down” again suffers from Eubanks’ rather heavy hand. “Prisoner Of Mercy” puts things firmly back on track, and features fine interplay between Duke and Walker on the intro. “Hallways” is another of those soul-blues numbers Walker does so well, combining passionate pleading with utterly incendiary guitar work to spine-tingling effect.

“Tell Me Why,’ written by Duke (It was on his Duke’s Blues disc from a few years back), gets a heavier treatment here, with Walker breaking out the slide, but Ray Charles’ “Blackjack” is given a spacious, understated arrangement with lots of room to hear individual notes as both guitarists trade astonishingly fleet runs up and down the fretboard.

“Big Fine Woman” finds Walker all over a wah-wah pedal for another of the disc’s forays into rockier territory, but closer “Send You Back” is a highlight, a spare acoustic blues featuring just Walker’s guitar and stellar harmonica from Sugar Ray Norcia.

All guitarists involved are superior string-benders, and while the focus is on the songs rather than the fretwork, there’s still plenty of jaw-dropping proficiency on display. Robillard and Walker seem to delight in challenging each other, and their frequent trade-offs provide some genuinely revelatory moments.

Walker’s blues credentials are firmly established by now, and few play ‘em with more passion and finesse. To my own ears, he’s far more successful with the blues than as a rocker, but that’s admittedly a matter of taste. Either way, there’s simply no denying the man’s musical muscle as both guitarist and singer, and Between A Rock And The Blues is another fine addition to an admirable discography.

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