Joe Louis Walker’s career has been as varied as it has been long. From an early age, Walker was part of the burgeoning and influential San Francisco blues scene, having first been exposed to the music by his Southern immigrant parents. Already playing in the clubs at 16, he was at home backing established acts and setting in motion a later career that would blend blues, jazz and psychedelic rock.
His journey through music has been just that, making pits stops in rock, gospel (he played nothing but religious music for a decade from 1975 to 1985), jazz and country, breaking down barriers and replacing them with a fluid, dynamic sound which takes influence from genres but has never been stuck in them.
Walker’s output totals over 25 records, and his touring schedule has been just as prolific, with dates from the North Sea Jazz Festival to Japan, Australia and all over North America. Multiple Blues Music Awards and an entry into the Blues Hall of Fame have followed. His 2012 Alligator release, Hellfire, received the Living Blues Critics’ Award for Blues Album of the Year.
“Hornet’s Nest” fronts up with a showboating, retro styling, immediately stressing Walker’s ability with rock riffs and showmanship. Whilst the backing suits his vocals well, it does overpower them slightly, and whilst the aesthetic is one of blending and blurring barriers, the lead track does come off as slightly unsure of what it is about and where it is going.
The bright, breezy horns of “All I Wanted to Do” show elements of jazz and soul, with Walker’s soaring, searing, emotional vocals feeling more at home, and the haunting, meditative tribute to the culture and music of his life on “As the Sun Goes Down” definitely works especially well in its setting, evoking the history and the struggle of a nation. This is Walker at his best.
But no laurels are rested on, and versatility lies deep in the heart of Hornet’s Nest. From the rockabilly, rock and roll and country elements of “Don’t Let Go”, to the soul and pop of “Ride on Baby”, this is an album of a multitude of directions and influences. Walker can sound like Elvis, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis, but all of his music is convincing, showing as it does no respect for musical division or outside segregation. His music is old and new at same time, displaying power, humor and a love for this form of expression (“Love Enough”). “Ride on Baby” has a songbook, radio-friendly feel, showing off both the variety and the different goals of the album, that of exploring different markets and audiences.
Some of Hornet’s Nest does come across as a little over the top. “Soul City’s” tribute to music’s power to travel and unite, with its looping, loping overdrive guitar, returns slightly to the vibe of the album’s beginning, and does feel slightly cloying. Equally, on the closing number, “Keep the Faith”, the message of strength and valuing the sense of achievement in life and music is slightly lost in the overwrought arrangement of organs and backing vocals. In the psychedelic territory of “Not In Kansas Anymore”, Walker comes off as a mix of Ozzy Osbourne and Mick Jagger. The combination is slightly odd, but strangely works.
But on the slow, stalking, walking blues of “I’m Gonna Walk Outside”, Walker is able to show off his guitar stylings in a more natural, sympathetic way, and in this, he achieves the greatness he is more than capable of.
An album of contrasts then, some of which work greatly, and some of which fall a little flat. Hornet’s Nest certainly contains some killer moments, but, sometimes the sting is not always obvious.