Vancouver blues fans planning to check out Louisiana slide-guitar ace Sonny Landreth at the Imperial this Sunday will get a blast from the past with the night's opening act.
Wailin' Al Walker--who's been a fixture on the local blues scene for decades now--will be warming things up.
I recall back around 25 years ago how Walker was the man in Van when you had a hankerin' for boogie-based, party-time blues-rock.
This story I wrote back in April of 1991 helps me remember:
Al Walker’s blues-rock trio, Rock Party, came about as close as you can get to taking home the top prize in last year’s Demo Listen Derby battle of the bands. And if it weren’t for the type of headgear that judge Paul Dean wore to the finals, chances are good that the hard-hitting band would have won the whole shebang.
“Paul Dean showed up on the last night wearing a baseball hat,” says Walker, sounding a tad remorseful. “And because it was in the colours of a local gang, the doormen said, ‘Take off your hat or you can’t come in.’ So he left, and without him as a judge, with the rock format we were doing, we lost by half a point. It was quite disheartening.”
As one of the judges that made it in to 86 Street that fateful night (I left my cap at home), I have to admit that Walker and his mates—bassist Gord Johnston and drummer Marko Ibarra—were, all around, the most impressive act to grace the stage. But without the Loverboy guitarist’s vote, the gritty blues-rock of Rock Party was inched out by the slick mainstream pop of State of Mind.
Still, the defeat hasn’t slowed Walker down. He hopes to put two albums out this year, one a traditional blues release titled The Devil Made Me Play It and the other a more commercial Rock Party LP, With a Vengeance. He’s also got a couple of his tunes set for release on Long John Baldry’s upcoming Stony Plain recording, It Still Ain’t Easy, and another one—a collaboration with Tom Lavin—scheduled for the next Powder Blues project.
And in the meantime he’s taking his revved-up brand of blues to clubs around town and winning new fans as warm-up act for blues greats like James Cotton, who he’ll open for at the Commodore next month (May 24). Walker has also shared the stage with such stellar artists as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Johnny Winter, John Hammond, and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose memory holds a particularly special place in his heart.
“We played two shows at the Commodore with Stevie Ray in ’81,” recalls Walker, “and then we travelled to Victoria with him for two more shows. I was with him when he wrote ‘Cold Shot’, actually. He was playin’ me the lick and sayin’, ‘See what I do—I play the rhythm and the lead at the same time.’
“And the funny thing is that when we were in Victoria, a young little kid was hangin’ around with Stevie Ray. You hear about how Colin James was Stevie Ray’s protégé, but Stevie Ray really took a shining to this other kid, who was with him all the time. And it was Dave Gogo from the Persuaders, who’s finally come into his own and is being heralded as a great blues player. That’s kind of ironic when you think about it.
“So Stevie Ray really sticks out, but there’s a story for every one of those guys I met. Otis Rush came to Vancouver one time, and I played rhythm guitar for him, which is a real honour. And Pee Wee Crayton—I was with him two weeks before he died. And when I played the jam at the Yale with the Wailin’ Demons, Jeff Healey used to come down, ’cause it was the only place that would hire him in Vancouver. So we’d have guitar wars, and just go crazy against each other all the time.”
Whether it’s Healey, Rush, or Vaughan, all of the great blues players that Walker has played with over the years have left their mark on him. Not to mention a scratch or two on his guitar.
“My Strat is completely carved up with everybody’s names,” beams the 34-year-old rocker. “Otis Rush, Luther Johnson, Buddy Guy, Junior Watson, Rick Derringer—I just got his. And Mitch Mitchell, the original drummer from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Mitch and I hung out for seven hours one day, and he told me all about Hendrix. He carved his name into the back of that Strat, and it took him four-and-a-half hours.
“It’s a ’72 Strat,” adds Walker, “so it’s not really worth a lot. But it’s sure worth a lot with all those signatures on it.”
Walker’s years of playing and hanging out with the best that rock and blues has to offer have left him with plenty of influences, but he’s still been able to forge a sound of his own.
“Everyone likes to stereotype me into biker boogie,” shrugs Walker, “but there’s a helluva lot more happening here than that. I was raised on Hendrix and Beck, and a lotta early blues, but what we’re doin’ in Rock Party I don’t hear being done by anybody else. It has overtones of ’50s, ’60s, ’70s blues, but there’s a contemporary energy to it as well.”