Duke Robillard,
Passport to the Blues
(Stony Plain, 2010)

Joe Louis Walker's Blues Conspiracy,
Live on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise
(Stony Plain, 2010)

Each a modern electric-guitar blues master, Duke Robillard and Joe Louis Walker have ridden the circuit for decades. At this juncture in their profession, the likelihood that they will emerge from the studios with less than consummately crafted recordings is close to zero.

Not exactly a news flash, neither Passport to the Blues nor Live on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise disappoints. If you like what Robillard and Walker are doing, you'll like them. And if you haven't been paying much attention to the current blues scene, these two discs will serve as worthy introductions to two of its most compelling artists.

Last time around, the Rhode Island-based Robillard revisited mid-century jump blues in the splendid Stomp! The Blues Tonight, which I reviewed here on 4 July 2009. That horn-heavy CD won him and his band (which included vocalist Sunny Crownover) a Grammy nomination. Passport represents a return to a more guitar-centered, heavily amped big-city blues sound of the sort that emerged in the 1960s and '70s.

All but one of the songs are originals, sung with the wit and conviction of a blues veteran who knows the language intimately. One particular delight, "Rhode Island Red," is an amiable parody of the 1961 Willie Dixon song "Little Red Rooster." Itself a reworking of Charlie Patton's 1929 "Banty Rooster Blues," "Rooster" was a 1961 hit for Howlin' Wolf, subsequently covered by the Rolling Stones, whose 1964 recording introduced me -- and I imagine countless other white boys -- to the blues. I recall thinking it was the strangest song I'd ever heard, and where could I hear more like it?

Robillard delivers the one non-original, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's brooding "Make It Rain," with gut-chilling intensity. Fittingly, he follows it with the jazz-tinged "When You're Old You're Cold" whose lyrics are funnier than the title would lead you to presume.

Walker's Live is a hard-rockin' party record of the fully entertaining kind, most of its cuts recorded with guest artists and blues fellow travelers, including Robillard, Johnny Winter (whom Walker introduces as "Johnny Winters"), Kenny Neal, Tab Benoit, Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado and Watermelon Slim. Walker has absorbed rock influences into his guitar playing -- notably, Jimi Hendrix and, less famously, Luther Allison -- without ever losing his identity as a serious blues musician. In other words, there's flash here, but it's smart flash, never unmoored from focus and intelligence.

Among current electric-guitar bluesmen, Walker is a strikingly effective carrier of the earliest blues tradition -- storytelling -- and, in his thoroughly state-of-the-art fashion, of the old-time blues ballad. For examples of that, though, you'll need to turn to his previous studio recording, Between a Rock & the Blues (see my review here on 6 February 2010), and in particular the extraordinary "If There's a Heaven." On the present disc, it's mostly good times, not gloomy reflection on the human tragedy, to serve as the business at hand.

Of course, that's a blues tradition, too: having fun. Still, "You're Gonna Make Me Cry," performed with Salgado and Mike Finnigan, is as sorrowful a soul weeper as is gonna make you smile.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 December 2010

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