Funk ‘n Waffles Downtown is one of the few Central New York venues that offers live music seven days a week. The unique location on Clinton Street in Syracuse hosts everything from open mics to national touring acts of all genres in addition to serving up some fantastic waffles. Thursday featured the blues stylings of Grammy-nominated guitarist Joe Louis Walker and his band.
The intimacy of the room was felt even before walking in the door. The headliner himself was standing outside the front door on this snowy evening, making time to speak with patrons and thanking them for coming out. Members of his band (Syracuse natives Byron Cage – drums and Will Gorman – keyboard and bassist Lenny Bradford) mingled about the crowd pre-show as a Chicago blues soundtrack provided the atmosphere over the PA.
Walker and his solid backing band set the tone early with a funky Walker original “I’m Not Messin’ Around” from his 1998 album Preacher and the President. Walker’s soloing quickly heated up the room, displaying the skills he’s honed since the age of eight.
Taking in a Walker show is experiencing a lesson in the history of American blues. The Blues Hall of Famer has performed with Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King – name a late 20th century blues legend, Walker has played with them. All of these influences are revealed in his style of play and singing yet he is able to channel the sounds of the Chicago style, Delta blues and Texas blues to make his own sound. The man is an encyclopedia of musical knowledge who turns that knowledge into the sounds he creates on stage.
One of several highlights of the night came when Walker began plucking the opening notes to the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Those in the crowd who were passively paying attention quickly turned their eyes to the stage for an emotional and powerful rendition of the classic. Walker’s solo mid-song proved that this was no mere runthrough of an oft-played cover. He made this song his – a combination of force and finesse that had the near sellout crowd eating out of his hand.
As the night wore on, the windows began to fog up and the smell of waffles mingled with the tight sounds coming from the band. Each member was featured prominently in the new song “Black and Blue,” one from Walker’s latest, Everybody Wants a Piece, a Grammy nominee for Best Contemporary Blues Album this year. The song began with a tribal beat led by native son Cage and carried along by Bradford. Over the course of the song, Walker and band straddled genres with ease. His soulful vocals mixed with great backing vocals from his bandmates, creating a sound that can be classified as contemporary soul.
Walker is a story teller and at each show he makes sure to pay tribute to those who came before him who may have not gotten recognition for their talents. On this night, he chose to regale the crowd with a tale of Earl Zebedee Hooker, “a guitar player’s guitar player,” as Walker put it. Hooker, a highly respected disciple of the Chicago style, was a contemporary of Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. He recorded an instrumental for London Records titled “Blue Guitar” that quickly became a favorite among the bluesmen on the Chicago circuit. Chess Records acquired the song to use for Muddy Waters’ 1962 album, using Willie Dixon penned lyrics and Waters’ overdubbed vocals for a song that would become “You Shook Me,” a song that was made even more famous by Led Zeppelin later on.
Following a humorous introduction by Walker, proper tribute was paid with his rendition of “Blue Guitar,” making full use of the slide techniques often employed by Hooker.
Each band member took turns soloing, a particularly blistering solo by another Syracuse native, Gorman, had the audience singing his praises during a funky and stomping take on “Hornets Nest” from the 2014 album of the same name. Walker also took this opportunity to switch guitars, retiring his gorgeous Zemaitis for the blue hollow-bodied D’Angelico. Walker teased the Ohio Players’ “Rollercoaster of Love” during this one, perking up some of the Red Hot Chili Peppers fans in the crowd.
After nearly two straight hours, the band wrapped up its set with the Hellfire track “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk.” This gritty number had a bit of a Double Trouble vibe to it and many teases from Walker, including “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me” from the Kinks and the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
A brief break preceded the encore, a straight-forward cover of Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin'” followed by the Walker original “Aint That Cold.”
It was a night well worth the drive through lake effect snow. Syracuse is blessed with a knowledgeable blues fan base and they were treated to a world-class performance in an intimate venue on this night.