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Blues Survivor: Some saw Joe Louis Walker as the next Robert Cray, but Walker's visceral style is far grittier than the sweet soul of his former label mate.

Big Boss Man

Joe Louis Walker and his Bosstalkers strike a deep blue groove

By Greg Cahill

ASK JOE LOUIS WALKER about the pressure he feels as one of the top new blues artists in the music industry and the usually shy guitarist will give you an earful. "Every night you've got to be good--people don't understand anything else, especially the critics," he says. "For younger guys, like myself, we have a lot more to compete with, including reissues of classic blues sides and reissues of those reissues. You have to compete with each other and all the rock guys who want to be blues guys.

"For us to be successful nowadays, it's not easy because there is so much competition. You're lucky if you even get heard. It's feast or famine."

These days, it's a pretty steady feast for Walker. The handsome 51-year-old--who co-headlines the upcoming Fat Fry Blues Festival--has earned a solid reputation for being equally comfortable as a down-in-the-alley acoustic player or a raw, contemporary axeslinger capable of piercing, staccato slide-guitar work. He placed second in the prestigious 61st annual Downbeat Readers Poll. He also drew rave reviews for 1996's Great Guitars (Verve), which featured an impressive lineup of legendary blues and soul guitarists, including Bonnie Raitt, R&B pioneer Ike Turner, former Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, Little Charlie Baty, Stax Records legend Steve Cropper, Buddy Guy, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Otis Rush, Matt Guitar Murphy and Taj Mahal.

After a string of fine albums on the Oakland-based Hightone label, in 1996 Walker and his Bosstalkers--who deftly walk a fine line between traditional blues and modern funk--were hailed as the Blues Band of the Year at the prestigious national W.C. Handy Blues Awards. His songwriting skills have earned a host of accolades, including a nod for his contribution to B. B. King's 1993 Grammy-winning album, Blues Summit (MCA).

Things began to pick up for the man who used to languish as the genre's best-kept secret. In 1998, Walker contributed guitar sessions to Robert Lockwood Jr.'s award-winning I Got to Get Me a Woman (Verve). The following year, he released a newly recorded and much-anticipated acoustic-oriented disc, Silvertone Blues (Blue Thumb), featuring newcomer Alvin Youngblood Hart and seasoned harmonica ace James Cotton in stripped-down, straight-ahead blues arrangements.

"Acoustic music is more intimate--it makes people stop and listen," Walker says. "Sometimes, when you hear a live band, it can get overwhelming. And as a player you feel like you need some peaks and valleys in a performance. It's like anything in life: tension and release, tension and release. And that's what music is all about.

"As for the new album, it is definitely a blues album," he adds. "There's a time and place for everything, and this was the right time because there is nothing else on that record except the blues."

WHILE THINGS are looking up for Walker, it's been a long, hard trek for this blues survivor. Enjoying a rare day of relaxation at his Novato home, the San Francisco native reflects on his days scuffling around Haight-Ashbury in the '60s while the city was in the throes of a blues revival. For a spell, he shared a Mill Valley home with the late Mike Bloomfield, the then-influential guitarist with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

"He opened my eyes to a lot of stuff, a lot of guitar styles," Walker says of Bloomfield. "He allowed me to see how he dealt with the music business, which was hard on him. He never did reconcile with it, ever. It just didn't work. He couldn't tour. He didn't like the business side because he felt like he was getting screwed, which he was, along with everybody else. He was such an intelligent person that it ran against his grain. But he was a great musician and real musicologist--you name it, he could do it."

Walker later jammed with the Grateful Dead and Steve Miller, before launching a 10-year stint with the Spiritual Corinthians. In 1985, he rejoined the blues fold, recording five critically acclaimed albums for the Hightone label that spawned bluesman Robert Cray. Some saw Walker as the next Cray, but Walker's visceral style is far grittier than the sweet soul of his former label mate.

But it's the incessant touring that has brought Walker to the attention of world audiences. That growing fame has not come without a cost. "It's like dog years, figuring all those days spent on the road," says a road-weary Walker, "because it doesn't always take into account that you have to get up at four in the morning to get from here to there, and after a while, it can wear you out.

"But I ain't complaining--I'm happy with what I'm doing."

Joe Louis Walker & the Bosstalkers play Sunday, Sept. 2, at the Fat Fry Blues Festival in Aptos Village Park. For tickets and more info call 831.420.2800 or visit www.fatfry.net.

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From the August 29-September 5, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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