A knockout for Joe Louis Walker

The preeminent bluesman will pack a punch with The Blues Rebels at Zappa Tel Aviv and Herzliya.

A knockout for Joe Louis Walker  (photo credit: Michael Weintrob)
A knockout for Joe Louis Walker
(photo credit: Michael Weintrob)
Joe Louis Walker seems to have been blessed with the complete package – he’s a phenomenal guitarist, has a voice that sounds like a Cadillac, he’s an inventive songwriter and a dynamic showman. The 63-year-old native of San Francisco has emerged over the last 25 years as one of the preeminent bluesman of his generation, but one who isn’t afraid to mix things up with generous dollops of gospel, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m not a purist: I think there are only two types of music – good and bad,” Walker said earlier this month in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post from his home in New York. “One thing about the blues that’s different from most other music is that it’s synonymous with credibility. When you hear Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, you don’t need to ask if they’re being sincere; you know they are.”
Walker, who will be making his Israeli debut on April 4 at Zappa Tel Aviv and April 5 at Zappa Herzliya, apparently has the credibility thing sewn up tight. He’s been nominated in an unprecedented four categories at this year’s Blues Foundation Music Awards taking place in May in Memphis – for Entertainer of the Year; Contemporary Blues Album, for his latest effort Hellfire ; Contemporary Blues Male Artist; and Guitarist of the Year, for which he is competing against the likes of Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa.
It’s not a shabby achievement for someone who swore off the blues for more than a decade in favor of spiritual music. Growing up in the freewheeling experimental San Francisco of the 1960s, Walker was not only exposed to the blues sounds of John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, but he also soaked up the psychedelic rock of local heroes Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and the avant-garde jazz of Thelonius Monk. He ended up sharing the stage with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Steve Miller to Charley Musselwhite and the gospel- tinged Soul Stirrers.
“It was a very fertile and versatile scene,” said Walker. “You’d go see the Grateful Dead, and they’d be sharing the bill with someone like Muddy Waters or a jazz artist like Ornette Coleman. So you’d go for one thing and get turned on to something else.”
A pivotal move in the young Walker’s development was meeting and establishing a deep friendship at age 18 with legendary blues/rock guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Besides performing together, the two became roommates and continued their friendship until Bloomfield’s untimely death in 1981 of a drug overdose.
The tragedy had a sobering effect on Walker, who left the world of blues, enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he obtained a degree in music and English, and began performing regularly with the Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet.
“As a musician, I’ve always been a restless soul, and I just got tired of the blues scene. Things got a little excessive, myself included, and I just switched my focus to gospel, which proved to be a fulfilling experience,” said Walker.
However, by the mid-1980s, the blue mojo was itching to emerge, and after a 1985 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Walker decided to return to his blues roots for good. Since then, he’s released more than a dozen acclaimed albums, featuring guests ranging from Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy to Steve Cropper and Tower of Power.
“It was the same thing, that restless spirit that changed my musical focus and brought me back to the blues. I think I was more mature and knew more of what I wanted to do. As a young guy, I didn’t really have that focus,” said Walker.
In addition to appearing at some of the big music festivals in Europe, Walker also performed at president George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and helped president Bill Clinton induct B.B. King at the Kennedy Center Awards.
“I found them both to be respectful of the blues,” said Walker, adding that he hopes he’ll be able to achieve the presidential trifecta by performing for President Barack Obama.
At his shows in Tel Aviv, Walker will be performing both acoustically and electrically, accompanied by local barnburners The Blues Rebels: Andy Watts on guitar, Dov Hammer on harmonica, Alon Hillel on drums, and Ilan Hillel on bass. Whether unplugged or plugged, the results will likely be electrifying.
“Blues has been here, and it’s gonna stay here,” said Walker, assessing the attraction of the music he makes. “It may not be as big as Lady Gaga, but we’ll see how long she’s around. Blues has been around for a long, long time.”
Joe Louis Walker will perform on April 4 at Zappa Tel Aviv and on April 5 at Zappa Herzliya