ZZ Top asked the question "how much blues do you use before you use it all?" on their killer groove "What's Up With That?" from their Rhythmeen album. In the case of Joe Louis Walker, a fixture on the blues circuit for decades, and his latest offering Hellfire, the tank is still very, very full. He is singing and playing with the conviction of a young man and the skill of a wizened, hardened veteran.
He is as fiery and invested as ever on this record, his first for Chicago's Alligator Records following a string of successful records for Canada's Stony Plain label (including his BMA-winning Album Of The Year Between A Rock And The Blues and his live album Blues Conspiracy). At Stony Plain, Walker had a secret weapon in the producer's seat in the person of the great, great Duke Robillard. Hellfire is overseen by a man of different talents but the skill level remains ridiculously high, that man being Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge.
Hellfire is a textbook example of contemporary blues, not beholden to the constructs of the tradtional rhythm patterns and elements of the idiom yet unmistakably blues at its core. "Ride All Night" is a great late-night anthem for the open road that rocks the blues hard without morphing into a morass of generic blues-rock. The same goes for "I'm On To You," another tale of a no-good woman, that not only demonstrates Walker's brilliance as a lead guitarist but also allows him to blow some very respectable harp.
The blues has had an uneasy relationship with God and religion since its earliest days with some terming it the devil's music, some rumored to have sold their soul to the same devil to play it, and some players putting their guitar down to save their soul. If Walker is at all conflicted about being a bluesman and a "Soldier For Jesus," you won't hear that confusion on Hellfire because the same fuel that ignites his soul and passion for the blues sparks the fervor of his faith. That fervor is evident in a couple other songs (the title track for instance) but "Soldier" is the most obvious example. It's a raucous, exuberant number with equal parts soul, blues, gospel, and rock. Those with a different belief system will have to fight the urge to suit up for war or yelp a battle cry as Bro. Joe testifies.
There is more to Hellfire than sweat-soaked scorchers. The highlight of the record comes when he slows things down on "What's It Worth," a grinding, burning six-minute slow blues that radiates atomic heat. Walker agonizes in an explosion of howls, wails, and piercing stabs of guitar and his vocal is even more intense. Washes of organ purify the song, bathing it in light that exposes the intensity. He is trapped and searching, and every note he roars or coaxes from his guitar comes from a place buried so deep inside you almost have to look away.
"I Know Why" is another slower moment on the record but it is a tender ballad rather than the hypnotic blues exorcism of "What's It Worth." Walker covers so much terrain over the course of Hellfire and is comfortable, capable, and convincing in each of his chosen settings. He has been too good for too long to assert this is his best record but he's as good as he's ever been throughout Hellfire, making this a contemporary blues classic and mandatory listening for anyone who loves passion-packed blues and great guitar.