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Walter Trout left this world for a while, but now that he’s back it would be hard to deny he’s among the greatest living bluesmen on the planet.
Many guitar virtuosos can overdo it and play so many notes that songs lose their feeling. Not so with Trout, the miraculous survivor. He pours emotion into every note squeezed from his Fender Stratocaster, and that’s what life and the blues are all about.
A recipient of a new liver and a second chance with life, Trout, 67, is spending each precious moment sharing his art with music lovers, performing it with his two sons and, after his concert Saturday at Lake Tahoe, staying with fans until each had a chance to speak with him.
“I am happy to be here,” Trout said, early in the night in the MontBleu Theatre. “I am happy to be anywhere.”
The concert started inauspiciously. There were sound problems with the vocals and Trout’s guitar and maybe a few other places. After the first song, Trout waved the production crew onstage. He’s not one to waste any more time.
A triumphant rendition of Luther’s Alison’s “I’m Back” sent chills through the audience. The sound was just fine now, and an unforgettable, exquisite performance was unfolding.
A stirring, powerful tribute to B.B. King, “Say Goodbye to The Blues,” followed. Trout often manipulates the strings to create a “violining” sound. A concertgoer said he calls it “whaling,” because it sounds like songs from the majestic ocean dwellers. That would be a whale with perfect pitch. At times, Trout would lift both hands off the guitar, in reverence to the power of the sounds it was making.
“I was feeling that one,” Trout said. “I got off. How about I just do that one five times and call it a night?”
Trout was in high spirits and talkative. He was joined onstage by the animated left-handed drummer Michael Leasure and longtime keyboard player Sammy Avila, who performed alongside his bass-playing son Danny Avila. There were bass and drum solos but, again, without histrionics. It was real. Real good.
Trout’s sons Jon, a guitarist, and Michael, a long blond-haired drummer, also joined the band.
In 2013, Trout, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, toured until it was no longer possible. He needed a life-saving liver transplant. He was bed-ridden for eight months and lost 120 pounds.
Before he lost his ability to speak, he told his wife, Marie, “If I am going to croak, please take me home to Huntington Beach where I can do it there.” Wanting to give her husband the best chance of survival, she refused his request. Instead, she crawled beside him in his hospital bed and said, “Now you’re home.”
Trout confides addiction led to the demise of his liver. He said he was once a “homeless junkie.” So after he became sober, he resolved to never again use any mind-altering substances, and that included painkillers. He eventually fell into a coma.
Trout described what happened next in the interview with me in 2015.
“I had an experience,” he said. “There are certain people I have told this to who are dear friends of mine who looked at me like I’m nuts. I was not high. I was not on fucking morphine or anything. I was visited by spirits.
“These balls of white light were flying around and suddenly I was out of my body. I was looking down at myself in the bed. I had no pain. I had no physical body. I had no weight. I had no carnal desires. I had nothing physical. I was pure consciousness. I was pure. I was spirit. And I got to experience it.
“I flew and I communicated with them. I said, ‘This is beautiful,’ and we were laughing. And they said, ‘Do you want to come with us now? You can come with us right now,’ and I knew that it meant I’m gonna die. I said, ‘No, I don’t. I want to watch my children grow up. I really want to try to hold on.’ And they said, ‘OK, we’ll see you soon.’ And this is as real as anything I’ve ever been through. This was real. They said, ‘We’ll see you soon,’ and suddenly I was back in my body, in pain.
“I believe I saw the other side. I got to experience it and it was incredible. When they said, ‘We’ll see you soon,’ I thought, ‘Am I gonna die next week?’ And I realized when I was with them there was no space and there was no time. So ‘I’ll see you soon’ could be 100 years. To them, there’s no time. It doesn’t exist. …”
Upon returning to earth and receiving a new liver, Trout had to learn to walk and speak again. Then came his music.
“I had no clue how to play guitar,” he told the MontBleu audience. “I just started over again. I played six hours a day and it took a year and then it came back.”
Trout wrote an entire record about his experience in “Battle Scars,” which was named “Album of the Year” at the Blues Music Awards. He played several of the songs from “Battle Scars,” as well as tunes from his new album, “We’re All In This Together.”
Trout listed the artists who joined him on the new record: “Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robben Ford, John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite, the greatest slide guitar player in the world Sonny Landreth and Jimi Hendrix. OK, that last one was fake news.”
He described recording the title track, “We’re All In This Together,” with Jo Bonamassa.
“We rehearsed it once and then I said, ‘We never have to do that again. It was raw, spontaneous and we did no overdubs, no fixes.”
And that’s just how it was at the Lake Tahoe performance. Along with laughter, tears, inspiration and dancing. That’s life at its fullest.
– Tim Parsons