Friday, April 6, 2012

Walter Trout's Blues for the Modern Daze - Top Shelf

The press release for Walter Trout's great new record, Blues for the Modern Daze, states that the album is his 'first pure blues album in 23 years as a bandleader.' So, you can maybe understand my surprise when I put on the CD and the first track sounded like a cool, lost outtake from Beck, Bogert, and Appice. This record rocks. It may be his 21st long player, but Trout sounds like a kid with something to prove, albeit a kid with 61 years of wisdom and experience.

"Well. you know, I played in a great power trio with Tim Bogert, and Bill Ward, the drummer from Black Sabbath back in '86 and '87," Trout states, "We played a lot at a bar right near my house in Huntington Beach, and I still have a great recording of a show we played together in Long Beach. We were called Blue Thunder, and for a while it looked like we might become really big, but...."

I knew that Trout had played with some of the greatest names in blues history, names such as John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulsom, Joe Tex, that he had joined the original Canned Heat in 1981, and then landed the ultimate blues guitarist gig - a slot in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers before going solo in 1989. I knew that famed BBC disc jockey Bob Harris had named him, 'the world's greatest rock guitar player,' in his book The Whispering Years, and that he had placed sixth on BBC Radio One's list of the Top 20 guitarists of all time. I hadn't realized that he almost went rock sensation with two of the most influential rockers in history.

"I had so many amazing jams with Tim, he was such a great, great singer and player," Trout said. "We did so many great old tunes, like Goin' Down, Howlin' Wolf tunes, Chuck Berry stuff, some really great times."

Blues for the Modern Daze is Trout's 21st album as a solo artist, and may just be his best. It defines everything that Walter has done over the last 23 years. His legendary six string gymnastics sit well amongst a diverse package of tunes that cover the gamut of blues for the twenty first century.

Saw My Mama Cryin is the albums opening cut, and it flat out rocks. Recorded with his basic stage rig (a dependable Strat and a Mesa Boogie MK V), Trout's tones are huge, as are his lively licks, and his passionate vocals. This is the blues - but it's the blues as the blues exists in 2012, like Walter says, "I think that if Blind Willie Johnson was alive today, he'd have an electric guitar,  a bassist and drummer, and it would sound a lot like this."

Produced in North Hollywood by Trout and long time engineer Eric Corne, Blues for the Modern Daze features Trout's touring band of drummer Michael Leasure, bassist Rick Knapp, and keyboardist Sammy Avila, and they provide the guitarist with the perfect palette on which to paint his masterpiece.

"This record is the blues - just in the way that I interpret them. When I went solo, I tried a lot of different genres, experimented with many styles and approaches. I mean, the blues is a very wide umbrella, and this is my interpretation of the genre. The blues hasn't, and doesn't need to remain stagnant! The old stuff, well, I love all that stuff, but I don't feel the need to copy that. This album is like everything I have ever written and recorded - it's not an exercise in songwriting, it's personal, it's topical and timely."

Indeed it is - Lonely, the second track is a slow blues tune for our time. It tells the story of Walter standing in Starbucks, listening to the crowd talking all too loudly into their cell phones, but with no sense of connection. Topical and timely? You bet. Trout relates some good advice on blues songwriting given to him by a somewhat drunk and disturbed female friend some 35 years ago:

Walter relates,"She said that there were two things that I must, must avoid if I were to write blues songs. There were two themes I must absolutely avoid. First, I had to avoid, 'my baby left me, and I'm bummed out.' That was the first. The second, that was, 'I'll buy you a Cadillac, baby, if you'll sit on my face!'

"I've tried my best to stick by that, but really, I broke them both on this record! My wife is continuing her education and is pursuing a PhD. Well, she was somewhere at a seminar in Texas, and I did miss her, so I sat down and wrote, Blues for my Baby. Then I experimented with a Willie Dixon-esque take on the housing situation in this country for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It's kind of a take on the whole 'great big Cadillac car' story! So much for the rules."

In keeping with the theme of modern problems, I asked Trout how his career was being impacted by the state of the recording industry and a world that downloads in lieu of purchasing. His answer was typically philosophical and measured with the wisdom of great experience.

"I have seen some changes over the course of my solo career," Walter states, "We used to do shows to advertise our records, in hopes of seeing big royalty checks from the record company. Today, we make records so we can then go out and do shows, and sell tickets. I just saw that Amazon is selling the new record for $9.99 - I don't make shit off of that. I try to explain to my kids, how vital it is to support the music they love by buying their records, but I know that a lot of downloading goes on. I think  that I am fortunate - blues rock fans are a bit more mature, and they enjoy getting to touch and see the records they buy. We've done a really nice job of packaging for this album, and I think the fans will really enjoy it, and it is a great value - nice photos, a cool booklet. This genre has really great and loyal fans!"

"I just did see something interesting on iTunes - it was a cover of a Led Zeppelin song by me that I knew I had never recorded. I bought it, and it was some terrible Led Zeppelin tribute band, and it totally sucked! I sent the record company several e-mails, but they haven't taken it down. It's not worth hiring a lawyer, and the way I look at it is that I worked awful hard for a long, long time, and I'm finally bootlegable!"

Trout comes across as a fellow who has worked hard, played hard, payed a great many dues along the road, and has lived to smile and tell the story.

I asked him about the obviously personal nature of the song, Recovery.

"Some would say that it's an overdone topic, I know I get a little tired of reading every other week about another celebrity that has written a book about how they lived through their addictions and came out the other side, but it's a true story. Recovery lasts forever. I was a heroin addict, I've been through it all, believe me - I've been sober for over 25 years, and I look at it every day, and still think about all the many friends I have had who didn't stop - they're mostly dead. I hope it might inspire people who are going through the same thing.

"When I get ready to do a new record, I often have a brief period where it's hard to get started - I get a little despondent, and think maybe that the ideas have dried up, that I can't do it. Then I hear the voice of my mother saying to me, very clearly, 'You are a musician. You make music, and it comes so easy and naturally to you.' After being on the road for eight or nine months, I'll take about a month off, then my wife reminds me that it's time to make a new record. I wrote this one in about three weeks, but I had worked out many of the lyrical ideas and concepts before that. Like Lonely - I had written that on a napkin while in line at Starbucks."

There are a great many other great songs on this album. Every tune is a memorable riff, a hummable melody, and several thousand great guitar licks that Walter Trout makes sound easy. I'll leave it to you, the listener, to get it and check it out for yourself. There are a great many treasures to be discovered, and I'll let you discover it in the same manner that I have.

Blues for the Modern Daze is the best blues rock record that has found its way into my world thus far this year, and I would highly recommend you place your orders now. The record is full of great songs, Trout's always incredible six string wizardry, his gutsy vocals, and a boatload of great riffs and songwriting. He's about to embark on another year of touring, and doing what he does best.

I get it now. This is a blues record, it's just not an out of date replica of some old schtick. This is the blues as it lives and breathes today, and Trout is one of the finest bluesmen on the planet. If you've been a fan, you know of what I speak. If you're not, get this record and get on board.

Thanks to Walter Trout, Steve Karas, and Peter Noble.

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