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CD REVIEW -- Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz, Giles Robson
GLT blues radio


Journeys to the Heart of the Blues

Alligator Records

Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz CD

By Bill Dahl

          Even longtime fans of veteran Bay Area guitarist Joe Louis Walker may be surprised by just how comfortable and intense he sounds on this splendid all-acoustic set, where he locates common synergistic ground with pianist Bruce Katz and British harpist Giles Robson from first track to its very last. The three master musicians are billed equally on the disc (they shared production duties as well), though Walker—usually heard in profoundly electric settings—handles all the vocals, inevitably in incendiary fashion.

          The seeds for the ambitious project were planted back in December of 2016, when Walker and Robson jammed at a festival in the Netherlands. Once Robson convinced Walker that an acoustic blues album was a wonderful idea that he should most definitely be involved in, Walker brought Katz into the equation. The trio entered a studio in Catskill, New York to make Robson’s fascinating dream come true.

          Except for the instrumental “G & J Boogie,” where Robson’s dancing harmonica is front and center, everything on the disc is a loving revival of a vintage blues classic, most of them decidedly obscure and several admirably dating from the pre-war era. Two pieces from the repertoire of piano master Big Maceo Merriweather, the rhythmically shifting “Poor Kelly Blues” and “Chicago Breakdown” (an instrumental showcase for Katz’s two-fisted ivories prowess), and Washboard Sam’s ebullient jump “You Got To Run Me Down” pay tribute to the “Bluebird Beat” – a style that prolific A&R man Lester Melrose specialized in during the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s crystal-clear that Joe Louis, Giles, and Bruce are eminently familiar with the effervescent sound, Walker’s crisp single-string guitar fills meshing beautifully with Robson’s darting interjections and Katz’s rolling 88s.

          The threesome’s approach lends itself equally well to postwar gems by Papa Lightfoot (“Mean Old Train”), the second Sonny Boy Williamson (“I’m A Lonely Man”), and New Orleans R&B shouter Smiley Lewis (the boastful romp “Real Gone Lover”), Walker’s pipes booming large over the proceedings. These guys are real scholars of the pre-war songbook too, digging out St. Louis Red Mike’s “Hell Ain’t But A Mile And A Quarter” (boasting two choruses of elegant piano soloing from Katz), Blind Willie McTell’s “Murderer’s Home,” and Son Bonds’ 1941 Bluebird classic “A Hard Pill To Swallow,” which comes this time slathered in slashing slide guitar and high-end harp.

          At a time when it’s often difficult to discern contemporary electric blues from run-of-the-mill hard rock, it’s thoroughly refreshing to hear this august trio embracing the music’s acoustic roots in such glorious fashion. For Joe Louis Walker, Giles Robson, and Bruce Katz, the Heart of the Blues beats unplugged.


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