A Trip Through Forgotten Blues Treasures with Walter Trout
Walter Trout is no ordinary artist and this is no ordinary covers album. From the day he conceived the project to the moment he counted off the first song in the studio, he had a bolder plan for this release.
“I’m riding in my car sometimes, and I’ve got a Blues station on – and here’s another band doing ‘Got My Mojo Workin’. And there’s a little voice in me that says, ‘Does the world need another version of that song?’ So I came up with an idea. I didn’t want to do ‘Stormy Monday’ or ‘Messin’ With The Kid.’ I didn’t want to do the Blues greatest hits. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered. And that’s how ‘Survivor Blues’ started…”
The tracklisting of ‘Survivor Blues’ is a window into the 67-year-old’s fast-moving backstory, chronicling a five-decade career whose one constant is his deep love of the Blues. Opener “Me, My Guitar And The Blues” tips a hat to cult hero Jimmy Dawkins, whose records Trout devoured while cutting his teeth as a ’60s axeslinger in New Jersey. “Nature’s Disappearing” nods to his celebrated ’80s tenure in John Mayall’s (also appearing at Bluesfest next Easter) near-mythical Bluesbreakers. In-between, you’ll find cherished favourites from a lifetime’s listening, with songs that caught Trout’s ear at key junctures in his journey, from backing up John Lee Hooker in the ’70s, to bringing the groove to Canned Heat in the ’80s or breaking through as a solo artist in the ’90s.
The roll-call of artists might be eclectic, but there’s a cohesion to ‘Survivor Blues’. From the outset, Trout made it his mission to harness the power and spirit of the originals, while stamping his inimitable musical personality onto each new take. He offers, “My idea was to do these songs like me, to arrange them for my band and style – not to just copy the originals note-for-note.”
Last September, as recording began at the Los Angeles studio of iconic Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, Trout and long-standing producer Eric Corne shared their vision with the only band who could measure up. The thunder and finesse of drummer Michael Leasure. The muscular groove of bassist Johnny Griparic. The spell-casting fingers of keyboards session god and regular Trout conspirator, Skip Edwards. “I’d play them the original,” remembers Trout, “and then I’d say, ‘Here’s how the song goes, what have you got?’ I’d give these guys a lot of freedom. The record was mostly done live, with us set up in a circle, just to get the feel of us going there together. And you can feel it, y’know?”
Walter Trout has a connection to each of these songs selected. He reflects on Chicago Bluesman Jimmy Dawkins never receiving the recognition deserved in covering ‘Survivor Blues.’ He reveals, “The last line – ‘Since you left me, All I have left is Me, My Guitar and the Blues’ – is one of the greatest lyrics I’ve heard in my life and I start crying just saying it. And my wife thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” Sunnyland Slim’s “Be Careful How You Vote” stresses the importance of choosing carefully at the ballot box, without taking sides. Certainly relevant for all members of society. Universal themes are also explored on Otis Rush’s defiant “It Takes Time” and the funk-flavoured groove of Luther Johnson’s “Woman Don’t Lie.” With J.B. Lenoir’s “Talk To Your Daughter,” he recalls, “I found this song that Lenoir does all by himself with the guitar, very slowly, almost without even a rhythm. I played the original to the band and said: ‘Now we’re gonna turn it into Jimi Hendrix’. I wanted to use it as a vehicle for the band and for my guitar-playing and vocals. I wanted to belt it out.”
There’s rarely been a Trout record without a tip of the hat to Mayall, and here the Brit-blues godfather is represented by “Nature’s Disappearing.” He reveals, “I was nervous about doing it because it’s by my mentor and surrogate father. John told me he’d read an article about ecology and pollution – he put the magazine down at the end and wrote that song in five minutes. It’s even more relevant today, with all the environmental regulations being thrown out and national parks being sold off to oil companies.”
You don’t hear a track like “Goin’ Down To The River” every day either, with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ancient gem decorated with slide guitar from a very special guest. “There was something about the lyric,” muses Trout. “Y’know, ‘I’m going down to the river, I’m gonna let the waves and the water wash my trouble down’. It tore me up. But the original is very different. I decided to take the verses that spoke to me, and then rearranged the song almost Muddy Waters-esque with that slide lick. Robby Krieger was coming in every day, listening and hanging out, so I said, ‘I’d love it if you played on this song’. So when I say ‘Play it, Robby’ – that’s Robby Krieger from The Doors. We just did that in the studio – boom, there you go.”
All they needed was a title. And as Trout surveyed his bloodied-but-unbowed cohorts – and reflected on a collection of Blues songs whose raw power remained undimmed – he knew the suggestion of his wife and manager, Marie, couldn’t be topped. “We started thinking about these enduring songs and the guys playing on the album,” he reflects. “Mike is in recovery. Johnny almost didn’t make it. Skip has had a triple bypass. And I almost didn’t make it after my liver disease in 2014. So Marie said to me, ‘You’re a group of survivors. You’ve all been through hell and you’ve come back. These songs are survivors. This album needs to be called ‘Survivor Blues’. I just looked at her and said: ‘You got it’.”
Listen to ‘Survivor Blues’ here!