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September 2018

Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz & Giles Robson
Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues
Alligator Records


Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues is an authentic album of mainly 1920s to '50s blues classics. It features American Grammy award winning vocalist/guitarist Joe Louis Walker and virtuoso pianist and compatriot Bruce Katz, who team up with UK harp ace Giles Robson to form the ultimate acoustic blues trio. Alligator mogul Bruce Iglauer made a shrewd move when he signed Robson as the first British resident to his prestigious label in its near half-century history.

Papa Lightfoot’s “Mean Old Train,” popularised by Leroy Carr, puts Giles in the spotlight straight away as the harmonica maestro deploys vibrato and chugging techniques to recreate the sound of a steam locomotion building up speed and slowing down. Sunnyland Slim’s “It’s You Baby” is tailor made for Bruce Katz who duels brilliantly with Robson, adding a further dimension to the original recording. The slow blues, “I’m A Lonely Ma”’ by Sonny Boy “Rice Miller” Williamson is sung magnificently in conversational style by Walker, complemented by intricate harp and sublime piano interludes. Robson and Katz are in their element with Jazz Gillum’s boogie woogie, ”You Got To Run Me Down,” which also includes some neat finger-picking guitar from Walker.

Next up is the slow, dark, atmospheric Blind Willie McTell composition, “Murderer’s Home,” Robson’s piercing and at times screaming harp underpinning Walker’s haunting vocals as he sings “... I got to go to the chain gang, back to the murderer’s home. I would have been in a better shape mama, if I'd have let that reckless woman alone... ” Joe Louis Walker joined Robert Lockwood Jr. on the latter’s recording of Roosevelt Sykes “Feel Like Blowing My Horn” nearly 20 years ago, and this version is particularly jaunty and upbeat with some great, innovative guitar licks. Katz again excels on “Hell Ain’t But A Mile And A Quarter,” Broonzy’s allegorical song about a black southern man’s voyage to a space policed by the devil and his henchmen, written by blues pianist Red Mike Bailey. The racial tensions of those times are evoked perfectly by Walker’s anguished vocals and Bruce’s edgy piano solos.

The sole original track, “G and J Boogie,” embraces much of Giles’ extensive repertoire of lung-bursting harp playing with breathtaking skill, timing and phrasing. The superbly arranged “Poor Kelly Blues,” the rhythmical backing harp cleverly changing pace, is a tribute to Big Maceo, as is “Chicago Breakdown,” a piano instrumental tour de force, the lightning, nimble fingers of Katz proving that the professor is at the top of his game. Traditional, downhome blues returns with another inspired choice of song, “Hard Pill To Swallow,” by Son Bonds, an associate of Sleepy John Estees.

The glorious finale is “Real Gone Lover” by Smiley Lewis, but it is the Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis version which is better known. The album ends as it began, with a contemporary, innovative take on traditional blues which enhances the original, often forgotten, songs of past masters and refreshes them for the current generation of blues fans.

--- Dave Scott



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