We've got two fine new albums in hand this week, from excellent artists at the opposite ends of the blues spectrum.
We'll take Joe Louis Walker today, and leave Ruthie Foster for another day.
Walker's latest CD, his 23rd, is titled "Hellfire" (Alligator), and that's actually a pretty good description. Walker has his roots in the 1960s music scene of San Francisco, where he was born.
By his mid-teens, Walker was playing guitar in Frisco clubs, working with artists from Lightnin' Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix, but his time spent as roommate to legendary blues-rocker Michael Bloomfield seems to have shaped his music more profoundly.
You can hear the blues in Walker's music, but stylistically, he's everywhere -- from country to gospel to rock to blues. That's not always a strong point for an artist, but it works for Walker. "Hellfire" is an eclectic blend of sounds from Hendrix to Hank Snow, but it's all filtered through Walker's own musical sensibilities. He sings with grit and emotional intensity, just the way he plays guitar -- no-nonsense, tough and crisp. And that carries through everything here, from rock to gospel.
You can hear a little '60s distortion on the hard-driving title track, and entire CD feels almost live, which it almost was, having been recorded in two days with minimal overdubs.
Some of my favorite tracks are the the raucous "Ride All Night," a searing and soulful "What It's Worth," an ode to the soulful black girl singers called "Black Girl," and a very tough cover of Hank Snow's classic "Movin' On."
Walker offers and extended and rousing blues-gospel track -- "Soldier For Jesus" -- back by the Jordanaires, the same group that sometimes made Elvis sound even better.
"Hellfire" was produced by Tom Hambridge, who has done some of Buddy Guy's recent CDs, and he produces just the touch here to showcase the talents of Joe Louis Walker. This is an excellent album of contemporary blues music, demonstrating how you can have your roots and your modern cake as well.
Here's a slightly rough live version of the title track, "Hellfire" -