Sound Observations with Joe Louis Walker

Friday, April 8, 2011 10:43
Posted in category Interviews, Upcoming Shows

By David Moye

Joe Louis Walker

Joe Louis Walker

Music, like all the arts, depends on intuition. Not just when you’re on stage, but even before it.

So says Joe Louis Walker, one of the most exciting and innovative artists gracing contemporary blues.

To him, it’s very important to “read” an audience before determining the set list.

“Really, the set list depends on the crowd — or if I’ve done a song to death,” he cracked. “Of course, some times, people ask for a particular song and we try and do it for them.”

Walker plays the late show at Anthology on April 8 and he also puts on a blistering show with his searing guitar, emotional vocals and great songs.

But, which songs he plays will, of course, depend on how he reads the crowd.

“Different audiences react in different ways,” he said. “An audience in Japan differs from one in Australia. The Japanese are more likely to sit down and be respectful, while the Australians are more boisterous and like it when you hit them in the gut.

“And America is so big that an audience in New York is different than New Orleans or New Haven.”

Reading an audience is something Walker has been doing since he picked up the guitar at the age of 14.

Since then, Walker has played with the likes of John Lee Hooker Buddy Miles, Otis Rush, Thelonious Monk, The Soul Stirrers, Willie Dixon, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Nick Lowe, John Mayall, Earl Hooker and Muddy Waters.

Oh, and a guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, who Walker learned about from his former roommate, Mike Bloomfield, another great guitarist.

Walker says this audience intuition is more important for artists like him who aren’t household names.

“Lots of guys just play what they play,” he said. “Paul McCartney can do that. But a guy like me who is not as well known has to pay attention in order to bring the crowd in.”

Walker is unique among contemporary musicians in that he not only has spent his life studying the blues, but he also has a degree in both music and English from San Francisco State.

The study of language and communication is fundamental to music and art and to Walker.

“Language is very important in communication,” he said. “One word can change the onus of a song.

“Some artists will write a lyric that is vague. Like Bob Dylan, he can be vague, but also be direct.

“Ultimately, to an artist, language is important because, like music, the more you know, the more options you have.”

One of Walker’s favorite writers, William Shakespeare, existed before the blues had a name, but he still strikes a chord.

“If you take time to understand him, Shakespeare is writing the same thing as in a song,” he said. “Like King Lear, it’s about a guy who lost what he had, but gained the knowledge in the process. That’s the blues there.”

Although Walker studied music and English at the same time, he says he didn’t need college to understand the literary genius of artists like Muddy Waters.

“School didn’t help learn that,” he laughed. “My Dad did by playing the blues around the house.

“The real genius of a Muddy Waters or a Howlin’ Wolf is the same as Shakespeare’s: You can perform one of their songs and it will have the same effect on an 80-year-old guy in Mississippi as a college student in London.”