Blues Comin’ Down: A conversation with legendary Bay Area bluesman Joe Louis Walker

Joe Louis Walker has seen some shit. He made a name for himself within the Bay Area music scene when he was just 16-years-old and played alongside luminaries such as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Miles, and Muddy Waters, so, when he speaks his piece on how COVID-19 has decimated the industry, he knows what he’s talking about.

As Walker himself would say, he has “skin in the game” and is fearful of what the touring landscape will look like whenever things begin to resemble “normal” again.

His excellent new album, “Blues Comin’ On,” was released on June 5, but, given the current state of the world, our latest conversation ended up being about more than just songs and solos.

MNOD: How have you been dealing with the quarantine?

JLW: I’ve been dealing with the quarantine a lot better than the shutdown of the touring industry. I don’t take it personally, though, because I’m in the same boat as everyone else. No one has a crystal ball that can tell them when things will ever get back to normal, but hopefully things start to open up a bit soon.

MNOD: Did you feel hesitant at all about releasing a new album in the middle of a pandemic?

JLW: I talked it over with my record label, but you can only play the hand that you’re dealt. People need music in these times and I’ve had a lot of time to really get familiar with these songs during the past five years. Normally, the record would come out and I’d be playing a ton of shows, but now drive-in shows appears to be the immediate future. I’ve got a couple coming up in Plattsburgh, NY as well as in Derry, NH at a place called the Tupelo Music Hall. It’s great to have something to look forward to, because most shows were postponed and all of the festivals were pushed back until next year. The only thing about that is no one really knows what this planet is going to look like next year. It’s discouraging to read the article about Live Nation in Rolling Stone this morning, because what they’re proposing is terrible.

MNOD: “Feed the Poor” is a stunning way to open the record. Do you feel as if a lot of these songs fit the current social climate?

JLW: I think it definitely fits the time now. A friend of mine writes poetry and he wrote this one when he was 19-years-old. I read it and he was talking about people lying in the gutter and I said, ‘This is deep.’ I don’t like to get too preachy with songs, because I’m not Bob Geldof. I like him, but I’m not him. B.B. King had a song called “Help the Poor,” so he wanted to do his own version of that.

MNOD: You have an impressive lineup of musical guests on this album. How difficult was it to get everyone’s schedules to align?

JLW: That was the hardest thing to do. Everyone was busy with their own projects such as plays and having books written about them, but I was fortunate to get everyone to work with me. I had Dion and John Sebastian, who are both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I had Charlie Harper, Waddy Wachtel, and Mitch Ryder. Everyone who played on this record trusted me with the music and I was able to accentuate what each artist does best. The point wasn’t for me to bring them in just to play solos, because I wanted to have a song that fit each style without one person dominating the music. I remember playing with Billy Gibbons and Eric Gales before and thinking why should all three guys solo when one guy could get both feet wet and really dig in. Waddy was almost like a third producer on this album, because he would always help out whenever I had an issue with sound or technology.

MNOD: Was there anyone that you hadn’t worked with before?

JLW: I had never worked with Carla Cooke before. I had heard the name before. but, when I heard her sing, she sounded so good. She made me sound good.

MNOD: Given how volatile society has become as of late, do you feel as if music will play a significant role in the movement again?

JLW: I don’t know. I mean, music has always played a role in social movements. We had ‘We Shall Overcome’ and Bob Dylan singing before Dr. King’s speech in 1963. We had Stephen Stills with ‘For What It’s Worth.’ The difference between then and this moment is the fact that we can’t have concerts. Back then, we had events like the No Nukes Concert with Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Bonnie Raitt to galvanize people, but today we can’t even gather together as a group due to the pandemic. Not being able to come together is terrible. Things are never going to be the same. We can’t even rehearse or do anything together. So many of these music clubs aren’t going to come back from this and that’s sad. Drive-In shows are the thing at the moment, but there are 200 drive-ins in the United States and Live Nation wants the buy them all and monopolize. They want to pay musicians 20% less, which is a way to kick people when they’re down. Back in San Francisco when I was younger, we had venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland Ballroom. Bill Graham had a vision, but he also had his favorites. You’d see the Grateful Dead one night, then Santana, then Jefferson Airplane, then Bo Diddley. Music has always been able to define a movement, but it doesn’t have the same effect when we can’t gather as a whole group. In San Francisco, we used to set up a flatbed truck with speakers and shut an entire street down almost like a block party. Any musician who says they’re not affected by this is lying, because music is our life and our life is music. My wife is out gardening right now, but you can only do so much gardening before you have to get back to doing what you do. I used to tell a lot of the younger kids I played with that they can’t get upset about things unless they truly have skin in the game. People of all backgrounds need something to come along to get everyone moving in the same direction, which is difficult in this country. You know that there’s going to a jailbreak for gigs once things start to open up, because, if Live Nation is offering 20% less, there will be someone willing to work for 50% less just to get a gig. People are discouraged right now and it’s pretty scary. We’re not the masters of our own fates. I’m 70-years-old and I’ve never known a situation where everyone had the rug pulled out from under them at the same time.

MNOD: As someone who lived through the protests of the ’60s, are you optimistic that the current uprising will bring about real change?

JLW: I am optimistic, because the young people are dedicated to the cause. They’re sick of the way things are and how the older people in power are leaving them with such a screwed up world. Change isn’t created in a vacuum and it ain’t going to be easy. We have Greta (Thunberg) making her voice heard on climate change and Malala fighting for an education after being shot in the head. They’re not backing down. We had two people, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, get murdered and that’s not something that you can just get out of your head. Bob Marley didn’t become Bob Marley by going to school, he went to the University of Life. John Lennon went to the University of Life. He became who he became, because he played all those crazy places in Hamburg. I know, because I’ve played them, too. People are sick of being kicked around and beaten down. You have a 75-year-old guy pushed to the ground and he’s bleeding out of his ear, and all some people want to talk about is how he might be Antifa. In the ’60s, we had three students get killed in Mississippi for trying to fight against the system, so today’s young people need to stay the course and not get discouraged. How do any of these politicians expect to leave a positive legacy when children are being kept in cages just for being in this country? How can we hold them responsible for not being here legally when they’re just kids? All of these elections come down to fear. There’s always something to be afraid of. How many walls can you build? I hope and pray that young people stay the course and continue to have skin in the game. With 40 Million people out of work, who knows what things are going to look like later on? We have iconic venues like The Troubadour possibly closing for good and people being gassed and shot with rubber bullets for trying to fix a broken system. People need to put their thinking hats on, as John Lennon said, come together and fight the problem. Young people can’t fall for the divide and conquer tactic that so many politicians use.

“Blues Comin’ On” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

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