Veteran blues guitarist Walter Trout visits Emmett's in Appleton
Walter Trout left for Los Angeles in 1974.
The electric blues guitarist was searching for more than what his native New Jersey could offer him, so he headed west and hit the California music circuit, eventually landing work with notable acts such as Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, the Righteous Brothers, Big Mama Thornton and more. However, it was his work with British blues legend John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers that gave Trout his big break.
He toured with the Bluesbreakers in the ’80s, becoming a high-paid world-traveling guitarist. Trout was set as a top blues sideman: good money, good music and no pressure. However, after about five years of touring with Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Trout quit the band on his 38th birthday. Their friendship was still intact, but it was just time for Trout to do his own thing.
In 1989, Trout launched his new band, now known as Walter Trout and the Radicals, who bring their electric blues show to Emmett’s in downtown Appleton Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s not Trout’s first stop at Emmett’s; he’s just as familiar with the Appleton bar as some of the major halls and theaters he’s performed in. In fact, Emmett’s has become a favorite recurring gig for Trout, who cites the bar as a “relaxed, informal place” that he “loves to play at.”
Even after 23 albums, thousands of gigs and his recent release “Luther’s Blues” sitting at No. 4 on the Billboard blues chart, Trout isn’t afraid to perform at a bar; he just wants to play guitar.
P-C: You moved to L.A. from New Jersey in 1974. Was that an all or nothing trip for you?
Trout: I didn’t have a backup plan. My parents were very supportive of my musical endeavors and believed in me. They always told me they thought I had a lot of talent and I should go for it, but they would also say I needed something to fall back on. I used to tell them, I’m not interested in falling back. I was just determined. I figured if I spent the rest of my life playing in little bars, as long as I’m getting to play to people and doing what I love, I’m OK with it. I was never out to be a pop star; I just wanted to play the guitar.
P-C: Performing with John Mayall was one of your biggest breaks. How is life on the road different now than your tour days with Mayall in terms of performing and partying?
Trout: For me, I haven’t partied in 26 years. I’ve been clean and sober. Now, it’s all about trying to eat well and getting enough rest and staying healthy and not collapsing at age 62 because the schedule is a killer. With Mayall, it was a whole different thing and with Canned Heat, I don’t even remember those four and a half years. That is a complete blur. I actually like it better being sober ’cause I’m actually able to remember what happens and I’m able to be in the moment when I’m playing. I can dig in and be connected to the music and not just be in a stupor up there. Though my years with John Mayall were probably the most fun I ever had as far as touring because there was no pressure and the guy has the greatest sense of humor. It was all just a lot of laughing and practical joking. And it got even better for me in his band when I sobered up.
P-C: You decided you wanted your own band while you were performing with Mayall on your 38th birthday. Tell me about that moment in your career.
Trout: I was turning 38 and I was playing in this big symphony orchestra hall in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was a big beautiful place and I was thinking, I’m 38 and I can write songs, I can sing and it’s always been my dream to have my own band and do what Mr. Mayall was doing. I wanted to write the tunes and provide musical direction so I realized halfway through that show that I had to quit. I had to take the gamble and it was a big gamble because he paid me great, we traveled first class, we stayed in great hotels, we did great shows and it was the pinnacle of being a sideman in a blues band. If you’re an electric guitar player and you’re in John Mayall’s band, you can’t get any higher than that. What are you going to do? You could go play with Buddy Guy, but you’re going to play chords all night. He’s not going to feature you. You could go play with B.B. King, same thing. Not with Mr. Mayall. He features you, he yells your name, he gives you all these solos and he lets you sing. He makes a star out of you and after four or five years of him sort of making me known around the world, I had to take the extra step. … It was a scary moment, but I don’t regret it all.
P-C: Your ’73 Fender Stratocaster is your favorite guitar. Why do you leave it at home?
Trout: It’s too much stress. Here’s the story: We’d stop at a restaurant for lunch and I’d have to take it in the restaurant, I couldn’t leave it in the van. I can’t leave it in the trailer. If we have a night off and we go to the movies, instead of leaving it my hotel room, I take it to the movies with me. I bought that thing new off the shelf when it was blazing white and if you take a look at it now, you can see what 36 years of touring did to it. It’s got my spirit in it. It’s more than a guitar to me and as a matter of fact, in my house, I have that guitar done in the floor as a mosaic. … It’s just too much stress man. I’ve had guitars stolen out of nightclubs a couple of times where guys just walk in the dressing room, grab the guitar and run out the back door and I just can’t deal with it. It’s home. It’s locked up. It’s safe. And that’s the way I like it.
P-C: What do you play when you’re on the road?
Trout: I have a couple of guitars that some friends of mine put together. A guy built a guitar body and Seymour Duncan built me some pickups and I had an old Fender neck lying around so we put that on there. It’s kind of a mutt. It’s not a pedigree, but it looks great and it sounds great. I’ve used it for about five or six years now.
P-C: Your latest album, “Luther’s Blues,” is a tribute to blues guitarist Luther Allison. Why did you create this tribute album?
Trout: I felt like somebody had to do it. I felt like the guy was one of the all-time greats and if you ever saw him perform, you’d know exactly what I mean. The depth of feeling and commitment and emotion he could put into his music. … He was also a really dear friend of mine and he was an influence on me. He had moved to Europe and finally won five or six W.C. Handy awards and he was on the cover of “Blues Revue,” crowned the new king of the blues and all this and just as he was breaking through in his own country, he got diagnosed with cancer and he was dead three weeks later. I just felt like somebody had to call attention to the work of this incredible musician and incredible human being. It’s been on my mind since he passed away and it just seemed like the time was right.
P-C: You said when you played with John Lee Hooker, you just played one chord all night: the E chord. What’s your take on people who say blues is an easy genre to play?
Trout: Listen to the long version of “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix; the 13-minute version on “Electric Ladyland.” That’s one chord and you find me somebody alive today who can play like that. It’s not technical music. It’s about feeling. It’s about expression. It’s about communication. It’s not just about playing certain notes that you’ve memorized. You have to go in very deep and that’s what it’s about. It’s not music of the head, it’s music of the heart.