If you go
What: Joe Louis Walker in concert, part of the Soul’d Out Music Festival.
When: 8 p.m. April 17.
Where: Jimmy Mak’s, 221 N.W. 10th Ave., Portland.
Cost: $13 to $17 for 21 and older through Ticket Tomato, 503-432-9477 or http://tickettomato.com.
Information: 503-295-6542 or http://jimmymaks.com.
Joe Louis Walker knows the blues and not just how to play and sing it. The newly minted Blues Hall of Famer has clearly thought deeply about the music he’s played for 50 years and speaks eloquently about it, starting with its power that can’t be contained by borders of any kind.
“You can take somebody from Des Moines, Iowa, from Texas, from Birmingham, England, from Tokyo, Japan, from Germany and put them in a room and play something, it could be as low down as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and they’ll all be tapping their feet and they all know the words,” Walker said in a mid-March phone interview. “When it’s over, they can’t talk to each other because they don’t have the same language. That’s some power, brother. That’s some serious power.”
The blues and its power, Walker says from experience, is transmitted in just one way that nothing to do with black or white, Texas or Chicago, young or old. And for Walker, the blues is more than the 1-4-5 chord progression.
It’s a philosophy.
“I don’t consider the blues just the music,” he said. “I consider it a social study in human survivability. It was the same for Keith Richards as it was Michael Bloomfield. They didn’t want to be Frank Sinatra, no disrespect, they wanted to be Muddy Waters. The music was vilified. Now those kids with the long hair are all icons.
“It’s a very interesting social study in how people can take something that can give strength to them and turn it into something that is worthy, right up there with Beethoven, Mozart and those guys.” Walker, 64, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame last year.
“It’s probably one of the most important honors I’ve ever received in my life,” he said. “It’s sort of a bittersweet thing. Guys who took me in and taught me by hand, like Bloomfield and Earl Hooker, who came in with me, aren’t around anymore. It’s very humbling.
“I’ve always looked at (the Hall of Fame membership) as making a major contribution to the music, bringing something to it,” Walker said. “When I came back to the blues in the early ’80s, I brought a little different thing. I didn’t sell a lot of records until I got on Universal. But I was playing the music and put my spin on it. It was like I could play ‘Dust My Broom’ and it’s still the blues, give it a little more of my influences and it all works. I hopefully opened up some people’s ears that blues can be a lot more than just 12 bars.”
Those influences can be heard on Walker’s 25 albums — “I’ve done jazz-influenced records, gospel-influenced records, rock-influenced records, traditional records,” he said. “It’s an amalgamation, a mishmash that I do.”
That sonic mixture is at the heart of “Hornet’s Nest,” his just-released Alligator Records album. A companion piece to 2012’s “Hellfire,” the record finds Walker mixing rocking blues with gospel, covering the Rolling Stones and getting raw and funky — a musical combination that fits the man who plays it.
A teen prodigy, Walker was the house guitarist at San Francisco’s famed club The Matrix at 16 and a regular at the Fillmore West at its peak. In 1968, he met and became friends and roommates with guitarist Bloomfield, who introduced him to the likes of Sly Stone, Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles, who introduced Walker to Jimi Hendrix.
From 1975 to 1985, Walker performed nothing but gospel, playing and singing as a member of the Spiritual Corinthians while attending San Francisco State University, where he earned degrees in English and music.
In 1985, inspired by a Corinthians performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Walker returned to the blues and sent a tape to Hightone Records, which released his debut CD “Cold is the Night” the next year.
Since then, Walker has been bringing the music of his life to people around the globe, putting off requests that he write down the story of his life and his philosophy of the blues.
“I’ve been asked on more than a couple occasions to put my story down,” Walker said. “I think at some time, when I get a break, I’ll do it. But anytime I think about doing it, something new happens.”
For now, the something new is “Hornet’s Nest.” What’s next, Walker doesn’t know. But he said he has a goal that he’d like to accomplish — getting another generation into the blues.
“If, in any way, I could do something to have younger people get interested in the blues and go back and find all that went to this music, all the players I would,” he said. “You can feel the link between Son House and Jack White, from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones, from Charlie Musselwhite to John Nemeth. That’s what I like about it. It’s what I want the younger people to know.”