Joe Louis Walker – Hellfire (2012)

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Photograph by Michael Weintrob

Listen to Joe Louis Walker, and you’ll hear the grimy city blues of Buddy Guy, the Rolling Stones’ junkie groove, the soaring echoes of Al Green’s church music, and Sly Stones’ urban soul. That’s the magic and the power of his work, something you’re reminded of all over again on the long-awaited Hellfire — Walker’s first full-length recording since 2009’s Between a Rock and the Blues.

Since then, he’s signed with Alligator Records, but lost none of his wanderer’s ambition.

So, sure, the album is propelled by its nervy blues sensibilities, yet there still remains inside of Walker an abiding love for rollicking back-pew gospel — something overtly referenced in both the opening title cut and his originals “Soldier for Jesus” and “Don’t Cry,” the latter two of which feature the legendary Jordanaires. For a decade beginning in 1975, Walker performed nothing but religious music as a member of the Spiritual Corinthians and, though he’s since made a name for himself as a direct descendent to Buddy Guy’s brand of searing blues rock, Walker has never completely let go of his former self, either.

That he can balance such seemingly disparate impulses — mixing and matching them, like a cook stirring a cast-iron pot — is what makes Hellfire, due January 31, such a dynamic, listenable experience.

The connection to Guy’s sound is only deepened on Walker’s Alligator debut by the presence of producer Tom Hambridge, who’s coming off a pair of Grammy-winning efforts with Buddy in Skin Deep and Living Proof — not to mention successful collaborations with Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood and others. Hambridge co-wrote “Hellfire,” as well as four other cuts on this 11-song project.

That gives Hellfire a similar tone, at times. Several songs brim with both the energy and danger of rock: Check out the Stones-y rumble of “Ride All Night.” But Walker, no surprise here, is just getting started. He pushes aside his guitar for a squalling turn on the harmonica for “I’m On To You,” follows Reese Wynan’s ruminative B3 all the way to the bottom of a brown bottle on “What’s It Worth,” then settles into a tangy Memphis shuffle for the album-closing “Movin’ On.”

Throughout, Walker’s solos are torrential outbursts of wiry fervor, so overwhelming that you’d think he’d risk a wild swerve into something completely out of control. But he never does. That Walker gets right to that arm-waving precipice but never goes over is a testament to his aspirations, of course, but also to his towering skill. Walker’s singing, meanwhile, is only slightly less reserved. He pushes his voice to its very ragged edge, taking in the full range of feeling — sounding desperate, hungry, seething and sad. You get the sense all over again (in the brief quiet between exhalations) that there is little he won’t try, and less still that at which he couldn’t succeed.

His work may feature its share of pyrotechnics, but they’re not here for the sake of smoke and fire. Instead, it’s all in the service of conveying bone-deep emotion. As a result, Hellfire is just a terrific return to form.

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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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