The most obvious reason to offer up any kind of award is to recognize outstanding achievement. A byproduct of that recognition is pointing listeners in the direction of great music they might otherwise miss.
Joe Louis Walker is no newcomer to the blues circuit yet I had never heard of him until I saw he was nominated for five Blues Music Awards including Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of The Year for his Between A Rock And The Blues CD, which also features a song nominated for Song of The Year.
That Song of The Year nominee is "I’m Tide," which opens the album. Walker’s vocal is relaxed, evoking Sign O' The Times-era Prince. While his voice may be laid back, his guitar lead is absolutely not. He lays down some mean licks, but it's the tone he generates that provides most of the heat to those leads.
"I'm Tide" is also set apart by having a rhythmic structure of its own. It's still a basic 4/4 time signature, but Walker isn't using the skeletal remains of a blues riff that has been used by every would-be bluesman in every dive bar across the known universe. Walker draws from contemporary and traditional blues elements as well as some sweet blasts of gospel organ. The clever wordplay — this is a song about fatigue rather than my favorite college football team or a popular brand of laundry detergent — gives a fresh coat of paint to lyrical themes that have been worn to death not only in the blues but also pop music as a whole.
"Black Widow Spider" is eerily reminiscent of "The Price You Gotta Pay," a song Keb' Mo wrote for Buddy Guy on his Bring 'Em In CD, on which Guy and Keith Richards collaborated. Aside from the surprising similarity, it’s a good tune with some nice sax work from Doug James. "Big Fine Woman" mixes some funk into the rhythm section while Walker flashes some wah-wah lead.
Among the other highlights are "I’ve Been Down," "Blackjack," and "Hallways."
On "Hallways," things slow down. WIth a run time of more than seven minutes, there is plenty of room to stretch out and Walker does but without hogging all the spotlight for himself. Bruce Katz's piano solo — with lovely organ accents — introduces the long instrumental passage in the song's midsection. Katz plays both chord runs as well as some single-key figures, but brings more of a jazz sensibility than an Otis Spann or Pinetop Perkins blues sound.
He takes two guitar solos in the song, an extended one that follows Katz and one after the song's final verse. Both are powered by the tension he creates with his restrained, urgent playing that sounds effortless. "Hallways" isn't played to oppress or overwhelm listeners with premeditation or cheap theatrics. He is pouring his heart out but his guitar keeps a stiff upper lip. The playing isn't weepy or sentimental nor is it forced. It is passionate, confident, and evocative.
Walker takes what could be another generic song about having the blues and injects it with furious energy on "I've Been Down." He isn't just down in this song, he's angry and frustrated, not willing to resign himself to permanent downness, even though he's been down this long. His voice conveys the strain of his struggle while his guitar shrieks and howls his defiance.
"Blackjack" is a sweet, retro slow blues with some more great piano work from Katz and some tasty leadwork from Walker. What separates Walker from many other blues leads is his range. Many distinguished players have a signature sound and style and all their leads fit within that scope. Walker plays a little slide here and there, throws in an acoustic number, flicks some B.B. King and Otis Rush-influenced leads, and also pulls off some jazzy runs like those heard on "Blackjack."
It's that diverse attack and the support from the contributing musicians that give Between A Rock And The Blues its energetic, refreshing feel. Where some blues records — be they traditional or contemporary — sound forced and stale, Between crackles with life. I’m glad the Blues Foundation introduced me to Walker whether I vote for him in any of those five categories or not.