What: Joe Louis Walker at Vancouver Island Blues Bash
When: Sunday, 7: 30 p.m.
Where: Ship Point stage, Inner Harbour
Tickets: $30 (250 386-6121)
Information: Festival schedule at www.jazzvictoria.ca
American bluesman Joe Louis Walker, who first played Victoria in 1968, is back to raise a little hell at the Vancouver Island Blues Bash.
Walker (playing Sunday night) and Nanaimo guitarslinger David Gogo (playing Saturday night) are the headliners at the festival, running Saturday through Monday. Local blues acts perform free shows during the day at the Ship Point stage.
San Francisco-born Walker, 62, is renowned in blues circles for his incendiary guitar style and gospelinflected singing - the latter a righteous roar reminiscent of Wilson Pickett.
Early this year he released his first album on the storied Alligator Records label, Hellfire, which has gleaned admiring reviews.
Hellfire showcases Walker, in typical fashion, dipping into a grab-bag of styles. The title tune offers edgy funk not far removed from Prince. Ride All Night sounds like an outtake from Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. Soldier for Jesus is rollicking gospel tune with the Jordanaires, recalling Walker's tenure with The Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet and other church-based groups.
Throughout Hellfire, Walker plays electric guitar with the zeal of a hungryfor-glory teen. He's able to upshift from down-home blues - steeped in the tradition of Muddy Waters and Otis Rush - to cosmic freakouts channeling Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bottom line: this man knows how to play and sing.
His eclectic approach has, on occasion, earned criticism from the blues police. The late blues king Willie Dixon encouraged Walker, however, saying: "Your style is all over the place. And that's a good sound for you."
Walker, who maintains homes on both American coasts, says he's always enjoyed mixing it up musically.
"It may not work one time out of 10, or two times out of 10," he said recently from New York City. " But if it does work, you get something you wouldn't normally get."
The ease with which Walker pole-vaults from one style to another reflects his early musical experiences. He grew up in San Francisco amid the fertile rock scene of the late '60s and early '70s. Back then, dividing lines between blues, jazz and rock were less defined.
Walker played the Fillmore West and, at age 16, was house guitarist at The Matrix nightclub. He befriended Sly Stone as well as guitarists Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Jorma Kaukonen (who gigged with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna). Bluesmen such as Freddie King and Mississippi Fred McDowell were also pals.
His roommate was legendary guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who encouraged Walker's interest in rock. When Bloomfield dipped into enthusiastic recreational drug use, Walker struck out on a new musical path. From 1975 to 1985 he played exclusively in gospel outfits.
One of the more unusual offerings on Hellfire is Black Girls. The song is a playful tribute to female black singers who infused blues and rock with dollop of soul. It gives shout-outs to performers such as Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Shemekia Copeland.
"I need a woman to get down who's brown," Walker sings mischievously.
On the phone, he said the song reflects his affection for soul-inflected rock popularized by the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker (during his Mad Dogs and Englishmen phase).
"I always liked those types of groups, everybody was represented," Walker said.
His recent touring schedule has included Brampton, Kitchener and Thunder Bay. He has close ties with Canada, having lived in Vancouver in 1968 and then in Toronto in 1970.
Walker has especially fond memories of a legendary club in this city.
"I played so many times in Victoria. I used to play Harpo's.... Victoria is the first place, in 1968 I think it was, I went that was not on America soil."
© Copyright 2013