Jazz and blues are widely regarded as America’s main musical exports, distinctly American musical forms that’ have subsequently spread around the world. Here we find the blues sailing the high seas as Joe Louis Walker headlines an all-star celebration recorded on the annual Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
Walker shouldn’t need much introduction by now. A ferociously accomplished guitarist who’s equally adept on slide, blessed with a distinct voice that cuts through the thickest grooves, he’s emerged as one of the blues’ most powerful and compelling performers. He travels in pretty esteemed company, too; guests on this set represent the cream of the contemporary blues crop.
The whole idea behind the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise is collaborative creativity, with jams enthusiastically encouraged. But there’s a difference between loose jams and focused performances, and here we get the latter, with Walker and his and hosting a dazzling parade of blues royalty, including the likes of Johnny Winter, Duke Robillard, and Tommy Castro – and that’s just for starters!
Things kick off with an appearance by Mike Finnigan on the mighty Hammond organ. His may not be the most recognizable name, but the man’s resume is impressive indeed – he’s worked with everyone from Jimmy Hendrix and Joe Cocker to Manhattan Transfer and Rod Stewart. Next it’s the great Johnny Winter, on a down ‘n’ dirty “Ain’t That Cold.” “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” features Finnigan again, along with Curtis Salgado, the two stretching the soul ballad out with exquisitely aching passion.
The pace picks up for the next few tunes, with appearances from Castro and Deanna Bogart (who delivers some sizzling sax on “Eyes Like A Cat”), guitarist Kirk Fletcher (Lowell Fulson’s “Ten More Shows To Play,” a song most touring musicians can identify with) and harmonica wizard Jason Ricci, who soars on a scorching version of “Born In Chicago.”
Walker takes it way down for an extended “Sugar Mama,” with Watermelon Slim providing superbly understated harmonica, before Robillard steps up for one of his own tunes, “Tell Me Why,” with some of the collection’s finest interplay between guitars. Next it’s Kenny Neal on harp, while Walker’s own band handles J. J. Malone’s “It’s A Shame,” a funky track that, oddly enough, doesn’t quite fit into the playlist. (Linwood Taylor’s guitar solo, while musically sound, sounds a bit too processed for proceedings). But things wrap up with a nice shuffling run through “747,” featuring the guitar of Tab Benoit with Mitch Woods on keys.
Performances throughout are nothing short of sizzling. Walker, with a background in gospel, knows a thing or two about intensity, and here he and his guests are all spurred to stratospheric heights. Walker’s band (guitarist Taylor, bassist Henry Oden, drummer Jeff Minnieweather, with Kevin Burton on keys) provides superb support throughout, and Walker proves an instinctive leader, keeping everything firmly on track while offering generous solo time to his guests. Sound is excellent, nice and immediate, front-row center with just enough audience presence to remind one that it’s a live recording.
Walker is a restless musical soul, and he’s dabbled a bit of late, with his last outing exploring the area where blues meets rock. This one’s a welcome return to solid, hard-core blues that, thanks to soulful conviction and commitment, never gets stale. It is, simply put, as good as it gets – and absolutely essential!