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Hellfire

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Album Review

There's no question that Joe Louis Walker deserves all the attention he should receive with his first Alligator release. Through sheer persistence and hard work, Walker has as much if not more cred, talent, and journeyman status than any other blues player of his generation. In addition, he's been releasing albums since 1986, making this one — somewhere around his 25th — an impressive achievement in itself. Entering his early sixties, Walker clearly decided that upping the energy, volume, and rock elements was a conduit for the commercial acceptance that has heretofore eluded him. So he joined with veteran producer/drummer Tom Hambridge, whose work with Buddy Guy proves that he knows his way around hot guitarists aiming to increase their marketplace visibility. The result is an often relentlessly busy recording that frequently feels forced, strained, and pushed to the edge, not necessarily in a good way. As Walker should know at this stage in his career, intensity in the blues world doesn't equate with playing and singing louder than the other guy. It has more to do with dynamics and subtleties in the vocals and performance. Both are, if not entirely lost, often absent on this well meaning but somewhat misguided album, which seldom mines the natural soul/blues/gospel groove Walker is capable of. The opening title track kicks off with crisp church-inspired beats, organ, and fine-tuned lyrics about good and evil, but loses the plot with Walker, who shouts more than sings, and displays a fret-slashing, wah-wah-enhanced, Hendrix-drenched guitar solo that's overwrought and undercooked. Walker is talented enough not to scream or fret-shred to make his point, something that Hambridge doesn't seem to grasp as everything is ramped up to 10 on the majority of these eleven songs, seven of which were penned or co-written by Walker. The guitarist's religious roots are covered on "Soldier for Jesus," and he even heads into more polished R&B territory for the "love-will-keep-you-alive ballad" "I Know Why," the album's most tranquil track also nearly derailed by Walker's smooth vocals that devolve into vein-popping utterances as the song progresses. That approach is more appropriate for the following Bob Seger-styled "Too Drunk to Drive Drunk," a simplistic yet energetic rocker likely crafted for concert singalongs by intoxicated crowds. Much better is "Don't Cry," a slick funker of the Johnny "Guitar" Watson variety that rides a slinky groove with backing soul singing providing the spiritual relevance. Elsewhere, on "What It's Worth," Walker's sharp, lyrical observations about success begin with a throbbing heartbeat of bass but quickly escalate into another volcanic explosion of notes that loses the stripped-down grit they started with. On "Black Girls," he praises the titular females for adding soul to music, then negates his words with a somewhat soul-less slide workout that, along with the backing vocals, makes the tune cluttered and too long. A closing cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" shows how comfortably Walker adapts the country standard to a blues/gospel format without losing the original's straightforward yet effective concepts. Walker and Hambridge are seasoned pros, and with fellow road warrior Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan) along on keyboards, everything is expertly played. But the album tries too hard to make its points, generally misplacing Walker's organic, rootsy appeal and obvious talents in the process. While it might indeed open him up to a larger audience, it does so at the expense of what makes Joe Louis Walker one of the finest living blues musicians.

Customer Reviews

Epic.

Absolutely amazing! JLW is such a fantastic soulful guitarist!

Hellfire

Joe Louis Walker is a name that will be familiar to many of you, he’s been around on the fringes of blues superstardom for many years, without ever quite becoming stellar in the style of Buddy Guy or Taj Mahal. His new release on Alligator records, entitled Hellfire, should go a long way towards rectifying this oversight from a man who has produced acts like Otis Grand and worked with Taj and Clarence Gatemouth Brown to name just two.
This is an album packed with intensity and it begins in a way that is synonymous with Joe, crazy, free, Buddy Guy-esque guitar married with impassioned vocals and a driving sound. Joe doesn’t slack off throughout, in fact, it seems he doesn’t seem to know how to slack off, and from this already intense opening the album just grows and grows in it’s intensity. It’s a veritable roller-coaster ride, but one without the slow drag upwards to generate speed, it’s all the twists and drops that generate the excitement from the word go. Joe isn’t afraid to draw in sounds from outside traditional blues either, and the album touches on gospel and old school soul as it progresses, along with this comes visions of Hendrix in the guitar playing, as well as the aforementioned Guy.
While the guitar playing may conjure up images of Joe’s influences, it’s definitely him at the helm. His sound is distinctive and individual, as it should be, and while it may share a sense of abandon or experimentation with others, it’s not going to be mistaken for their playing. It stands confidently and freely on it’s own, just as it always has, and is well worthy of the term heroics in it’s description. Joe’s voice too is an expressive and singular instrument, soulful and rich it’s expressive in the extreme and has a distinctive rasp, and if, as with the guitar I’m forced to draw parallels, I’d invite you to imagine a cross between Otis Redding and Howling Wolf, although that doesn’t even come close to adequately describing it.
This is a properly great record, good songs abound throughout, they can be spiritual without being horribly preachy (I would be more than critical of that…) and carry a positive message. It has a rich and exciting production that matches the material too, the mix is superb and the pacing of the track selection is perfect, all in all I have little to criticize, no, strike that, I have nothing to criticize. So will it propel Joe from the second tier ranks of blues musicians to the place where he really belongs? It should, truly it should, but as so many people think the blues starts and stops with SRV or Gary Moore it will have to work hard to gain the audience it so richly deserves.
In my eyes Joe is a superstar, and anyone who disagrees is, well, wrong.

Biography

Born: 25 December 1949 in San Francisco, CA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Without a doubt one of the most exciting and innovative artists gracing contemporary blues, guitarist Joe Louis Walker has glowed like a shining blue beacon since the release of his 1986 debut album for HighTone, Cold Is the Night. The disc announced his arrival in stunning fashion, and his subsequent output has only served to further establish Walker as one of the leading younger bluesmen on the scene. Joe Louis Walker is the total package, as tremendously assured on a down-in-the-alley acoustic...
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Hellfire, Joe Louis Walker
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