3 stars (out of 4)
Veteran blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker has been recording steadily since the mid’-80s, but “Hellfire” is his first album for Chicago-based Alligator Records. It is also his most rock-oriented release, with production and songwriting assistance from drummer Tom Hambridge, who has worked with Susan Tedeschi and Buddy Guy on some of their biggest commercial successes.
Blues purists might be disappointed as Walker brings a bombastic ferocity to many of these songs: the wah-wah-drenched solo on “Hellfire” digresses with the kind of fierce embellishments that Jimi Hendrix might’ve conjured, “Ride All Night” sounds like an outtake from an early ‘70s Stones album with its slide-inflected chords, and the slow-burn “What’s It Worth” spins ever wilder and wider into outer space with each solo.
But these aren’t just grand gestures in search of a bigger audience. Walker attacks these songs like the gospel vocalist he once was, his fallible narrators struggling to stay the course, and his ferocious guitar playing conveys desperation and determination in the face of some pretty heavy moral choices. Things lighten up as the album winds down with toss-offs such as “Too Drunk To Drive Drunk,” “Black Girls” and a brisk run through Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On.” The latter is ostensibly a country tune, but Walker isn’t confined by such boundaries. He’s a modernist at ease with mixing, matching and sometimes trampling as his heart dictates.