A month after Hurricane Katrina left its devastating mark on the people and city of New Orleans, Walter “Wolfman” Washington walked out on stage at the legendary Maple Leaf nightclub with his backing band the Roadmasters and, in front of a national media scrum, played the first mass audience gig in the Crescent City since that fateful August night. For a blues singer who had been playing innovative guitar on the club circuit for years—skillfully backing Lee Dorsey on some of his biggest hits including 1965’s “Ride Your Pony” and the following year’s seminal cut “Working in the Coal-Mine”, not to mention the Wolfman’s 20-year musical association with the late, great vocalist Johnny “the Tan Canary” Adams—the attention came as something of a surprise. According to the Wolf, “We were in Ohio, by my sister-in-law’s. And the Maple Leaf called and told us they were opening and wanted to bring the music back ... I said: Let’s go. I didn’t realize at the time that I was the first one to come back. I just wanted to come home”.
Since then, Washington has been kept busy with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin proclaiming April 30th Walter “Wolfman” Washington Day. Meanwhile, his latest album, Doin’ the Funky Thing, heralds the belated return of this soulful bluesman to the recording studio after a decade-long absence. A gumbo of southern soul, jazz, funk, and urban blues spread over 10 original compositions that not only makes you want to get up and grind the night away as the opener “Shake Your Booty/Funky Thing Part 1” provocatively suggests, but also contains four excellent songs full of hope for the battered city and a rallying call for its citizens.
The first in the cycle, “I’m Back”, is a languid jazz-funk number with Washington’s weathered blues growl calling out “We’re going to bring New Orlean back” as Dr. John guests on Hammond B3 organ producing a fetid, swampy groove. “Crescent City Starlights” has a Memphis Soul swagger with sweetly blowing horns rising above the Wolfman’s vocals as the optimistic cry for rejuvenation, “Like a tree coming back to life”, continues the theme. “Landslide” (not to be confused with the late Tony Clark’s mid-‘60s Northern Soul classic) is a deceptively upbeat number describing the aftermath of Katrina as a claustrophobic pitch black night draws near and curfew looms. But it’s the subtle lyrics, written by the last original Roadmaster, bassist John “Jack” Cruz, and detailing the easy loss of a happy-go-lucky life once taken for granted, on the rousing soul number “Just Like That” which hit home the hardest.
Elsewhere, Washington continues to work it like a wolf howling at the moon and stalking the beat on the funky, wah-wah bass-line trippin’ “Tweakin’”, the deep soul crooner “Only You” with its stabs of exultant horns, and the bookend closer “Shake Your Booty/Funky Thing Part II” which returns this fine album to whence it came: grinding it out on the dance floor.
Finally, Walter “Wolfman” Washington was caught in the glare of the spotlight and a funky ambassador stepped up to get down and shine in the process. A welcome return, indeed.