CABARET LIFE NYC: Joe Louis Walker Band is a Revelation for this Lapsed Blues Buff
Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Back in the 1980s to early ‘90s there was a down and dirty bar on funky and quirky 2nd Avenue near 14th Street called “Dan Lynch’s,” where the only thing more muscular than the bouncers were the bands that played the Blues. Skyrocketing rents, gentrification and creeping yuppie-hood upscaled the neighborhood so Lynch’s and many other charming East Village haunts gradually faded away. These days, one of the few places you can hear great Blues bands in New York City is at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill on West 42nd Street (another stretch that used to be funky, quirky and dangerously fascinating), a musical oasis in a desert of seductive tourist traps and unhealthy fast-food joints.
I’ve never been a listen-to-the-Blues-through-my headphones kind of guy, but I absolutely love experiencing solid Blues singers or bands live—everything from Blues-Rock to Delta to Gospel Blues to Zydeco. But since Dan Lynch’s disappeared, I hadn’t been listening to much Blues or keeping up with the contemporary Blues music scene. Then last week a friend suggested I go to BB’s to check out the Joe Louis Walker Band, which I had to sheepishly admit I had never heard before. Well, now I’ve heard them—not a moment too soon considering what I’m hearing on the radio these days—and they’ve brought the Blues back into my life. I had been a lapsed Blues fan and experiencing the music out of the Joe Louis Walker Church has made me a believer again.
Walker’s August 16 show at BBs came three days before the multiple Grammy and Blues Music Award-Winner of almost three decades in the business was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame at Kenny’s Castaways (the venerable Bleeker Street music venue which is closing in September after 45 years), and he and his tight and talented band were on their game. In addition to stellar veteran guitarists Murali Coryell (rhythm, below left) and Lenny Bradford (bass) was newcomer Jordan Rose on drums and Walker’s bodacious-voiced new front singer Bertha Blades (below center), whose power vocals are a hybrid of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner, with a touch of a contemporary female blues singer like Janiva Magness. Blades also infuses some welcome sensuality into a testosterone-laden group.
Walker opened the show with “Black Girls” and then reached into his gospel roots with “Soldier for Jesus (On the Front Line),” both original songs from his recently-released 23rd CD Hellfire (Alligator Records, with whom he signed in 2011). The former featured Joe’s lead guitar and Blades’ vocals on a rocking blues number with licks reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” while the latter overlays rock and blues touches on a hard-core gospel song. The big room at BB’s really started hopping on the rocking “Eyes Like a Cat,” written by Duke Robillard (who co-founded one of my favorite bands, Roomful of Blues), and from the CD Between a Rock and the Blues, which was nominated for five 2010 Blues Music Awards (including Album of the Year). Walker’s guitar riffs on this—and throughout the entire show—were nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s too bad there isn't space for a dance floor in the big room at BBs because this is definitely a get-up-and-boogie number.