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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

bound to receive many accolades and award nominations

Great Guitars was the first Joe Louis Walker CD I ever purchased. By then (1997), he already had an impressive array of releases available. Now fast forward to 2012. Over his 27-year career, Walker has released 24 albums including the 2010 Album Of The Year Blues Music Award for Between A Rock And A Hard Place (Stony Plain). Hellfire – his first release for Chicago’s Alligator Records – was produced by songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (producer of Buddy Guy's two most recent Grammy-winning CDs, Skin Deep and Living Proof, as well as albums for Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood and others). Here, Hambridge performs drums and percussion while renowned Reese Wynans contributes piano and B3 organ.

Hellfire reflects the full spectrum of the blues genre and is rooted firmly in blues, gospel, R&B and rock. The disc’s 11 songs are predominantly original and come baring modern rhythms which are upbeat and catchy. There is a Hendrix influence that is noticeable on the title track and the two gospel songs are joyous stomps with sweet backing vocals that tread where only angels can go.

It’s early in the year, but this disc is going to be difficult to beat. Hellfire is bound to receive many accolades and award nominations. No wonder Blues Revue called Walker "one of contemporary blues' most dynamic and innovative musicians, who releases consistently exciting music."

hats off

hats off to Joe Louis Walker and alligator records this is the spirit of playing the BLUES good stuff

what a find!

Heard "Hellfire" on BB King blues station on Sirius.. and glad i did this is a fine recording.. and you can pick Reese Wynans right out..
thank you Mr. Walker !!!!

Biography

Born: December 25, 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...
Full Bio