by MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Like its title implies, “Hornet’s Nest” is a collection of songs that don’t aim for relaxed listening. The second album by blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker for Chicago’s Alligator label, and his 25th overall, Walker is not complacent when it comes to his sound: hard rock to gospel, his unusual background coming up in San Francisco’s psychedelic era suits them all.
“I love ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ but I can’t define myself by that song. I have to come up with my own ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ — That’s what really defines an artist,” he says.
Walker headlines City Winery Saturday, arriving a year after his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. His class included guitarist Earl Hooker, country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, Chicago soul great Otis Clay, among others. The company is stellar, but it illustrates that defining the blues, past or present, is never easy.
“Hornet’s Nest” is proudly modern, designed to nest comfortably alongside anything from the Black Keys or Jack White’s latest incarnation. Walker’s voice demands attention: Scorching, imploring, always commanding, it leads this dynamic album along with his heavy guitar fills that lay the ground work for horn-peppered soul, Memphis soul, gospel harmony, and — on the song “Not in Kansas Anymore” — a vortex of power chords and funk.
Walker, 64, grew up in the Fillmore district of San Francisco to a father who worked home construction but came home to a record collection he played for his son. “That was his release,” Walker remembers. “Eating cornbread, drinking buttermilk, and teaching me the blues.”
He had older cousins who were in the Brougham Brothers, a band that played sock hops, weddings and private parties. By age 16, Walker moved out the house, got his musicians union card to join the band, and started his professional career.
This was 1962 and “the hippies hadn’t gotten there yet,” he says. From a battle of the bands to gigs at the Fillmore Auditorium to a regular gig at The Matrix, a mainstay club in town. (“I saw James Brown before he got a brand new bag,” he says.) Walker spent the decade playing blues and R&B hits of the day to eventually sharing bills with acts as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Ike Turner, Ornette Coleman, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jefferson Airplane.
“The music was the conduit for bringing all kinds of people together,” he remembers. “Everybody was touched by it because people became a little more tolerant of other people. You’d see people coming from places like Chicago and New York, people wanting to leave uptight surroundings and being able to just literally let their hair down. Unfortunately all good things come to an end.”
One of those people from Chicago was Michael Bloomfield, the teenage guitar prodigy from Glencoe who honed his skills in Hyde Park, eventually becoming the driving force behind the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a first generation integrated blues band which ended up backing up Bob Dylan when the protest singer transitioned to rock.
Bloomfield fled that scene with a distaste for pop culture, but when he arrived in San Francisco, he hit the ground teaching others what he knew of the blues, reversing the trend he originated when apprenticing under Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, and others back home. “You couldn’t touch him with a six-foot pole and the records prove it,” he says. Walker’s friendship with Bloomfield influenced the former guitarist’s music and they shared an apartment until Bloomfield’s 1981 death. Today, Walker says the experience showed him that music has never followed a neatly transcribed path.
“Nobody ever comes up in a vacuum, no one gets dropped down from the sky. Lester Young didn’t just show up, he played with Count Basie. John Coltrane didn’t come up with ‘A Love Supreme’; he played with Miles Davis. That’s what Michael had — He was able to learn from Muddy and then relay that to me. It crossed all kinds of color lines, all kind of monetary lines,” he says.
Eventually, Walker dedicated himself to gospel music for a 10-year period, but for the last 20-plus years has played music that has melded all his influences. Now living in Hyde Park, N.Y., a Hudson River community, and performing internationally, he says he is living proof of the boundless potential of blues.
“I try to play music I can hang my hat on, but then a minute later another door opens up musically,” he says. “That’s how I got interested.”