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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.

CABARET LIFE NYC: Joe Louis Walker Band is a Revelation for this Lapsed Blues Buff

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.

“We’re gonna slow it down now,” Walker said, before launching into “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” a blues ballad with a classic gospel flavor. Blades had a wonderful wailing solo on this one that would have made Janis proud, then held a musical conversation with Walker on the R&B tinged “Tell Me Why,” continued the relentless set of ultra cool blues/rock duets on “Lover’s Holiday,” and maintained her upper register wail for what seemed a blissful eternity on Lazy Lester’s “Sugar Coated Love,” which again featured an unbelievable Walker guitar solo. Walker and Blades reached an orgasmic climax on this section of the show with the Willie Dixon’s classic “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” a heavy instrumental R&B arrangement that featured great guitar riffs from Coryell (who’s playing has been compared to Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton—not bad) and Blades transitioning from a whisper to a wail like a car going from zero to 60 in eye blink.   (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

Walker then generously relinquished the spotlight to Coryell, who led the band on three cuts (out of a 13-song set) from his critically-acclaimed 2010 CD Sugar Lips. Walker’s guitar sounded like a character with dialogue on the plaintive blues ballad, “I Could’ve Had You,” the group laced into an electric and extended instrumental on the slightly Doobie Brothers-sounding “Minor Funk,” and Murali and company were flawless on the foot-stomping title track, “Sugar Lips (Honey Hips).”

Joe then took over on two more songs from the Hellfire CD, the fun, boogie-tinged Blues “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk”—including another “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Wooo!” Rolling Stones ending riff—and the rocker “Ride All Night,” which the band played when they closed the Conan O’Brien TV show in mid-March. The only disappointment in the set was that this was the encore number because I could’ve ridden this show all night.

Here’s a critic’s tip: If you are going to be in St. Louis on Sept. 1 (Big Muddy Blues Festival), Vancouver, Canada on Sept. 2 (Vancouver Island Blues Bash), Baltimore on Sept. 8, Maui, Hawaii on Sept. 14/15, Piermont, NY on Sept. 20, Fairfield, CT on Sept. 22, or Stanhope, NJ on Sept. 29, go check out this amazing and classic Blues band. I’ve already put in my reservation for the next BB’s date—and I don't even know when that's gonna be. 

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