It’s heartening to hear Joe Louis Walker’s lead-off track "It’s A Shame" off his highly entertaining Stony Plains release Witness To The Blues. It's a funk-drenched tune that goes back several decades to J.J. Malone, a major nurturing influence in the Bay area where JLW hails from. Joe Louis is in fine fettle. His superior vocal and guitar chops put him in the vanguard of the blues elite. Funk but one spoke on the proverbial blues wheel. Give Mr. Walker his props as he leaves no stone unturned. This is quickly apparent with "Midnight Train," a high-voltage, horn-driven soul blaster.
Joe’s background is as solid as the Rock Of Gibraltar. He’s been paying his dues ever since he returned to the blues scene in 1985 and released a series of highly-acclaimed albums. Before then he was concentrating on Gospel, performing regularly with the Spiritual Corinthians. The tragic death of Paul Butterfield convinced the then 36-year old Walker to change his life, albeit his gospel roots are never far from the surface. On this release, Walker’s testifying spirit is front and center on the sanctified "Witness."
Walker’s encyclopedic knowledge of blues history runs deep, along with his singular ability to tap into its multi-varied hues with taste and talent to spare. So it is no accident veteran guitarist and Roomful Of Blues founder Duke Robillard grabbed the opportunity to produce "Witness To The Blues" and his joy in the results have been well-publicized. The CD is eclectic to the max and JLW’s thrill-a-second vocals and towering guitar presence have shaped the strands into a rootsy tapestry of soul and blues with a touch of West Coast swing to boot. Duke Robillard’s guitar adorns about half the tracks and I also recognized the splendid horn section of Scott Aruda and Doug James, who are prominently featured on the more soulful offerings like "Midnight Train," "Hustlin" and "Keep On Believin."
Some of the most magical moments feature Walker and duet partners. "Lovers Holiday," as an example, is an alluring vocal pairing with blues chanteuse Shemekia Copeland. From a "Soul Train" standpoint, one couldn’t hope for a better match-up. These two will take you higher and higher and leave you breathless. Many have already pegged this cover of Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson’s soul classic as the highlight of the CD. And it’s hard to argue with that, albeit guitar mavens might refer your attention to "Highview," an electrifying 7 minute instrumental feast of West Coast-style guitar. JLW and Duke virtually speak to one another with their guitar: I think the language is called "Guitarese." Their combined fireworks might have melted those guitar strings!
On "Rollin’ & Tumblin’," "I Got What You Need," "100% More Man" and "Sugar Mama," JLW gets down to earthy, down-home blues. He takes care of business in masterful fashion, turning each track into a persuasive personal statement. "I Got What You Need" is a no-holds-barred assertion of one man’s virility, which piggy-backed by some sparse guitar works yields an acoustic gem. "100% More Man" is a slide-guitar masterpiece. Enough said. "Sugar Mama" has been around forever, but something transformational happens, making it feel like the first time you heard it. "Rollin’ & Tumblin" is given a compelling new arrangement, a slightly more urbane treatment than normally associated with this Muddy Waters chestnut. Its insistent, hot groove is as dance-floor friendly as it gets so be prepared to party. It also features some spot-on keyboard work from veteran Bruce Katz, who helps ratchets things to an even higher level. Katz, like Duke Robillard owns a "been-there-and-done-it-all" type of resume.
Witness to the Blues is an apt title for a CD, but few artists could live up to the promise inherent in its phrase. Joe Louis Walker is the exception, meaning he’s a virtuoso in every sense of the word, so by the time this treasure trove of soul and blues finishes working its spell on you, it’ll have you begging for more.