Walter "Wolfman" Washington – Doin' The Funky Thing (2008)

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NICK DERISO: A kind of love letter to New Orleans, and its richly flavorful musical styles, “Doin’ The Funky Thing” brings together everything that should have made Walter “Wolfman” Washington an overnight sensation.

Instead, this working musician of more than four decades quietly put out half a dozen records as a leader, while appearing downpage on countless sides as a featured guitarist and bandleader.

He never quite made it big. Yet, along the way, all of those experiences seeped into Washington’s sound, a galloping thing which melds country and urban blues with bop, funk and soul. His ability to croon as well as he shouts always sanctified Washington’s live shows; he’s more quietly emotive on his records, but still gritty and direct.

Like most New Orleanians, Washington was sent into exile as Katrina flooded into his hometown. What followed was a long hiatus from the studio and from the Crescent City, a break that makes “I’m Back,” this swampy blues featuring Dr. John at the Hammond B-3, both a clarion call to old fans and the emotional centerpiece of “Doin’ The Funky Thing”: “It’s coming back to life,” Washington sings with both defiant hope and no small amount of soulful reminiscence.

He could be talking about his ruined city, and his own career.

Washington came to fame as a former sideman with funky New Orleans legends Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey but also boasts stints with soul singers Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas. That period included appearances on seminal cuts like 1965’s “Ride Your Pony” and ’66’s “Working in the Coal-Mine,” written by Allen Toussaint.

By the mid-1980s, Washington had signed a deal with Rounder, issuing “Wolf Tracks,” “Out of the Dark” and “Wolf at the Door” between 1986-91. Performances with the legendary J.B. Horns came next, before two more CDs for Rounder — 1998’s “Funk Is In the House” and 2000’s “On the Prowl.”

But Katrina changed all that. “Funky Thing” is his first recording since. Even still, it ranks as one of his best. Always a sensitive interpreter of blues and R&B standards by both heroes and contemporaries like Ray Charles, Tyrone Davis, Little Willie John and Bill Withers, Washington presents a more emotive, self-produced effort here in which 9 of the 10 songs are originals.

His current backing group, The Roadmasters, includes original bassist Jack Cruz, drummer Kevin O’Day, saxist Jimmy Carpenter and trumpeter Antonio Gambrell. Together, they drop listeners into the grease with the thundering, two-part “Shake Your Booty/Funky Thing,” but also take a moment to express lasting fidelity on “Only You.” “Landslide,” with an even wider blast of trump and trombone, has a vibe that lives up to its name; “Just Like That” (the only cover) is a roadhouse rocker.

Each, though widely disparate, coalesce nicely within “Doin’ The Funky Thing” as a fluid, powerful tour-de-force.

Equal parts Bootsy Collins, Bobby “Blue” Bland and, on “Wolf Jazz,” George Benson, Washington embraces a blues modernity, even while he keeps one scuffed-up toe in the deeper past, both musical and personal.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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