Starting in the mid-1980s, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Joe Louis Walker began issuing his highly regarded blues releases on a series of labels. His longest stint was with HighTone, followed by shorter runs with Polygram, Provogue, JSP, Stony Plain, and currently Alligator Records.
Between 2008 and 2010, Walker recorded three albums for Stony Plain including Witness To The Blues (2008), Between A Rock and The Blues (2009), and Live On The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise (2010). Now, as part of the label’s newly inaugurated “best of” compilations—including the simultaneous issue of a similar collection from Long John Baldry—The Best Of The Stony Plain Years offers 11 songs from the Stony Plain catalogue. One matter this collection demonstrates is that Walker—sometimes known as “JLW”—is a blues entertainer who touches many bases, mostly performing electric, large ensemble material with a contemporary bent. He writes, or co-writes, the lion’s share of his songs and is generous sharing the spotlight, especially with his keyboard players and the guests who pop up throughout his canon.
The ever-present Duke Robillard produced the two Walker studio albums for Stony Plain, beginning with Witness To The Blues. Other than the rather unmemorable “Witness,” the set is well represented on the compilation with “Hustlin’,” featuring barrelhouse piano by Bruce Katz, and the traditional “Sugar Mama” which kicks off with an old school high-note harp solo. For me, the extended instrumental, “Highview,” is one of those mini-epics everyone should hear at least once. While the support is reminiscent of a Booker T. & the M.G.’s groove, Walker’s six-string melody lines make this number something very special.
Speaking of special, Between A Rock and The Blues earned five nominations in the 2010 Blues Music Awards and won the Blues Foundation’s Blues Album Of The Year Award in 2010. Among the participants was Kevin Eubanks, the former bandleader for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show Band. Selections on the “best of” collection, again, point to Walker’s versatility from the big band jump blues of “Eyes Like A Cat” to the Stax/Atlantic soul-flavored “Black Widow Spider” to the funky, energetic rock guitar god punch of “I’m Tide.”
Less special, recorded January 25- 27, 2010, Live On The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise was billed as Joe Louis Walker and the Blues Conspiracy. This band included Walker’s regular players, Linwood Taylor on second guitar, Kevin Burton on keyboards, Henry Oden on bass, and Jeff Minnieweather on drums. As with most “Blues Cruise” gigs, special guests are abundant. In this case 18 fellow performers joined the Conspiracy. The most famous of the lot, Johnny Winter, brought his slide-guitar licks to a passable “Ain’t That Cold.” Mike Finnigan (organ, vocals) is featured on two selections, “Slow Down GTO” and the really slow, torturous “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry.” Well, there’s an audience for the latter’s call-and-response Gospel shouting, but, for me, this sounded like one of those performances you had to be there for.
Altogether, The Best Of The Stony Plain Years is an uneven, mixed bag with something for everyone. Why not purchase Witness To The Blues and Between A Rock and The Blues and you’d really have the greatest hits of Joe Louis Walker on Stony Plain Music. If you’d prefer a short sampler to determine your interest, no harm done. “Highview,” alone, is worth the price of admission. With luck, any or all of these releases should spark interest in Walker’s other work, whatever label he’s on.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00JXZNFQY]