Covers albums are a strange phenomenon that only occasionally work. Too many artists go down the well-trod route of picking obvious tracks, only to remain so in thrall to the power of the original, that they fail to make them their own in the process. In contrast, Walter Trout’s new album, Survivor Blues, sees him track down pieces that have not been covered over and again. The result strikes to the very heart of what it means to perform a blues cover. Very much in love with the spirit of the originals, but equally desirous of placing his own stamp upon them, Walter brings that essential spark of personality to each piece, and, joined by drummer Michael Leasure, bassist Johny Griparic and keyboardist Skip Edwards, he cut all twelve tracks live under the watchful eye of Eric Corne.
That live spirit is felt straight away on sultry slow burner, me my guitar and the blues (Jimmy Dawkins), into which the band settle with a rich warmth that is a delight to hear. Walter’s guitar work here is simply exquisite. The depth of feeling he imbues into each note is palpable and his vocal delivery is no less impressive. However, it’s a whole band effort and it’s clear that tracking live was the right choice as the interplay between the members is clear. What an opening track – it has that rare spark that you just don’t associate with a cover, and Walter inhabits the song with a sense of empathy that leaves the listener breathless. Next up, be careful how you vote (Sunnyland Slim) is given a rocking revival to which you can’t help but move (whilst the message remains increasingly pertinent), and the stinging solo that rages across the second half is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Luther Johnson’s Women don’t lie sees Walter and his band joined by Sugaray Rayford for a funky charge that sees Skip’s keys placed to the fore, the rhythm section nailing the groove and Walter trading lines with Sugaray with a boundless energy that few artists could match. Walter slows the pace on Sadie (Hound Dog Taylor), a track that sees Walter push himself to deliver a solo free from blues cliché – and it will leave the audience stunned when he breaks it out live. Please love me – a nod to Walter’s beloved B.B. King – is suffused with joy (very much as B.B. himself would have approached the song), whilst the solo recalls those combustible sessions when Buddy Guy would jam with B. B. at the Crossroads festival. The first half concludes with the smooth groove of nature’s disappearing (John Mayall), as Walter harks back to his tenure with Blues breakers. One of those pieces of music that just seems to drift in the air in front of you, the lyrics, nonetheless, pack a powerful punch and remain as relevant today (if not more so) than when they were first penned. It draws a gorgeous, subtly progressive line under the first half.
Opening up the album’s second half, the driving rock of Red Sun sees Walter and his band clocking up the miles as they cruise across middle America in an open-topped Cadillac. The pace is once more relaxed on the slow burning something inside of me (Little Jimmy King), although that’s not to say that Walter’s fingers don’t tirelessly flash over the frets when it’s time to solo. A defiant blast of blues-energy, it takes time (Otis Rush) feels like it could have been written yesterday, such is the energy with which Walter tackles it. Similarly, out of bad luck (Magic Sam) is similarly engaging, Walter’s guitar work a thing of excellence, and only a fade out detracts slightly from the whole, as it feels like it brings the curtain down on a killer jam. Mississippi’ Fred McDowell’s Going down to the river sees another guest, this time in the form of Robby Krieger (Doors) appear on a track that is propelled to greatness by the liquid slide that underpins it. It leaves God’s word (J. B. Lenoir) to round out the collection. A twelve bar stormer that plays to all of Walter’s greatest strengths, it sees the whole band push themselves to really bring the album to the tumultuous close it deserves.
As Walter showed on his tribute to Luther Allison, his primary gift (beyond his obvious musical ability) is a rare empathy that allows him to embody the songs that he covers. Listening to Survivor’s Blues, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that these are covers and the way the record ebbs and flows is testament to the fact that each piece is developed with all the energy and passion that artists normally reserve for their original material. That the musicianship is exquisite is a given, but it’s the thrill of hearing these long-buried gems bought thrillingly to life once more that really shines through and there’s no question that this is a collection that fans will listen to time and again. Walter is the ultimate survivor and his beautiful blues are nothing short of inspirational.
Essential listening. 9.5