The blues comes in all sorts of shades. The principal category division runs along North-South lines, with the former primarily emanating from Chicago in the form of electric-based endeavor, while the more traditional acoustic version comes from the Deep South.
Joe Louis Walker lives happily in both domains. The 66-year-old New Yorker guitarist-vocalist will demonstrate his musical allegiances, and not a little expertise and soul, when he performs four gigs around the country between February 23 and 27.
The concerts will also feature the Tel Aviv-based Blues Rebels foursome with whom Walker made sweet music on his previous foray here three years ago.
“I really enjoyed playing with those guys last time,” says Walker. “We had a great time together.”
Walker says he embraces the blues per se, and while he is very much in the here and now, he also has a strong bond with the cradle of the blues.
“I try to grab a little bit of each and try to put my own mark on it,” he says.
He has been doing that for a long time. He hails from a musical family and first set fingers on a guitar when he was eight. It quickly became apparent that the youngster was a natural. By the time he was 16, he was a fixture on the blues gig circuit in and around his hometown of San Francisco. He also got to mix it with the likes of blues greats John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, in addition to rock megastar Jimi Hendrix, which must have something of a stronger bond with roots of the discipline.
“I played with quite a few of those guys,” he says. “When you have those guys around, you learn a lot about how things were back in the day. You get an idea of how things work.”
One of the more fascinating stages in the evolution of the blues over the last century-plus is the fact that the music was not considered fashionable in the US in the 1950s. It was largely thanks to British blues revivalists such as Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner that the general populous in America rediscovered its own root music.
While agreeing that the blues consumer market profile was in the doldrums in the US when he was a kid, Walker does not accept that the blues was comatose before the Brits got in on the act.
“There’s always been this rumor that the blues wasn’t popular,” he notes. “The blues was popular. Some people didn’t know anything about [the history of] the blues, and they learned about it through Elvis Presley and people like Alexis Korner and the Allman Brothers. But believe me, my mother, my father, my cousins, my uncles, my brothers, my friends and their brothers and uncles and aunts and all their friends, they all knew about the blues, and they never stopped listening to it. If you’re talking about the white public, that’s something else. I had blues and gospel every single day in every household, everywhere I went.”
The so-called British Invasion of the 1960s also had a telling effect on Walker’s peers.
“In 1964 The Beatles came on TV. I was about 14, and that made everyone go out and get a guitar,” he recalls. “And then the Rolling Stones came on TV, and everybody wanted to know what these guys did.”
That helped to reintroduce Americans to the blues.
“In interviews, these [British] guys talked about people like Little Richard, BB King, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino. But believe me, they were always playing the blues. I used to go and see them,” he says.
In fact, Walker didn’t have to roam too far or wide to catch all the big guns doing their thing on stage.
“I lived in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, and the Fillmore Auditorium was only about a block away from my school. I used to see the battles of the bands, and I was fortunate enough to see James Brown there and Little Richard and [British blues-based group] Fleetwood Mac, the Yardbirds and loads of others. I also played there myself eight or nine times. It was a sort of watermark place for all the music that came over,” he explains.
Walker had been making a living playing the blues for quite a few years before. In the mid-1970s, he decided he needed to do something about his formal education, so he enrolled at the San Francisco State University to take a degree in music and English.
Unlike his younger classmates, Walker already had a substantial taste of the reality of the life of a musician before enriching his theoretical knowledge in the classroom.
He says he tries to strike a balance between the two.
“You need to have an awareness of what’s really happening and not to be naïve and believe everything you hear, think that you can do anything you want. But it’s also good to have some education so you can articulate your thoughts and be able to go to a higher plane,” he says.
Walker took a timeout from performing the blues between 1975 and 1985 but returned with a bang when he joined the Mississippi Delta Blues Band.
“We toured Europe for a couple of months, and I returned to the States and became affiliated to a record company,” he says.
Over the years, Walkers has put out more than 25 albums as leader and performed sideman duties on many others. He has lost none of his zest for creating new material and pumping out blues vibes in hefty dosages.
“I don’t think you can ever reach a point when you look back and judge what you’ve done,” he states. “You can only tell if you’ve done something worthwhile if you’ve touched people.”For tickets and more information about Joe Louis Walker’s shows: The Cube Club, Zichron Ya’acov, February 23 at 9:30 p.m. (04) 630-0111; Shablul Jazz Club, Tel Aviv, February 24 and 27 at 9 p.m. (03) 546-1891; and Hemdat Yamim, February 26 at 10 p.m. (04) 698-9423; (04) 698-0964.