Joe Louis Walker can play guitar and that’s the truth. The Chicago-based blues singer has been a presence on that city’s music scene for decades now, releasing albums on an almost annual basis since the late 1980s. Alibums such as 1990’s Gift and 2003’s Between a Rock and the Blues reveal a musician with serious guitar chops as well as a gospel-tinged megaphone of a voice. Never a purist, Walker is unafraid to incorporate plenty of rock and roll and even a little funk into his arrangements.
Hellfire is Walker’s first album for the blues standard-bearers over at Alligator Records, and the set is a knockout, showcasing a wide variety of approaches unified by his incendiary guitar throttling and those expressive, angst-ridden vocals. This is a good ‘un, kids.
Opening track “Hellfire” is a jaunty uptempo boogie number that benefits from gurgling organ undercurrents in addition to the other weapons in Walker’s considerable arsenal. The quick pace is at odds with the dark thematic material, though, and the song seems slightly uneasy with itself—until the guitar starts howling two minutes in. Walker’s use of wah-wah, whammy and the Devil knows what else (see what I did there?) ensures that this solo is enough all by itself to elevate the tune to show-stopper status.
Happily, the triumphs don’t end with the first track. “I Won’t Do That” slows the proceedings way down, bringing the listener into deep blues territory. On this tune, Walker’s voice does as much of the heavy lifting as his remarkable guitar playing (with a capable assist, once again, from the dancing fingers of Reese Wynans on keyboards).
In a way, that’s the album in a nutshell—slow blues tunes and peppy uptempo songs—but such reductiveness is unfair. “Ride All Night” wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1970s Rolling Stones album, a rocking stomper that’s as lascivious as it is heartfelt—or is it the other way around?—while “What’s It Worth” is a slow-burn of a song, a six-minute-plus simmer that builds to a crashing crescendo and utilizes the depths of Walker’s vocal delivery to brilliant effect.
Not every song is perfect. “I Know Why” brings a smoother, r&b vibe to the proceedings, with mixed results, while “Soldier for Jesus” is a gospel-flavored rocker that apparently reflects Walker’s genuine devotion. It’s particularly creepy in light of contemporary military-religious movements—not only al-Qaeda, but the US military’s own religious-fundamentalist strands as well. Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of going to war for Jesus—against “the Devil” or anybody else—is more than a little off-putting. Sure, maybe it’s metaphorical. So is jihad.
Such missteps aside, this is an album full of terrific songs and blistering performances. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” is a classic slice of good-times blues-rock boogie, while “Black Girls” manages to somewhat offset the oddness of its lyrics with spirited performances and yet more guitar noodling. “Don’t Cry” brings a funky bassline and bouncy rhythm to the table, along with a genuinely moving testament of faith, while “Movin’ On” closes out the album in timeless here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion.
Blues fans probably know Joe Louis Walker’s work already, but if not, this is an excellent introduction to a talented performer. Existing fans can be assured that Walker isn’t standing still; meanwhile, aficionados of all sorts of music, played with skill and conviction, would do themselves a favor by giving a listen.
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