There’s a real buzz in Islington tonight, not only due to the 31-degree temperature which turned the Assembly Hall into a hot, sweaty club. A titan of the blues-rock scene, Walter Trout brings his own fire and is blasting us with impeccable guitar work sending sparks flying in all directions.
Walter Trout – Elles Bailey
Islington Assembly Hall, London. 17 June 2022
Words: Liz Medhurst
Photography: Mariam Osman
It’s a privilege to be here to experience this master of the craft with impeccable credentials, including stints with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and Canned Heat, who is gearing up for the release of his thirtieth solo album.
It’s kind of miraculous, too, that he’s here at all. The success of his liver transplant in 2014 reversed the effects of years of substance abuse, albeit after a long hard road back which saw him at death’s door and having to relearn all basic functions, including the guitar. He has the energy of men half his age now.
First up is Elles Bailey, who, due to extensive gigging over the last few years, has developed into a seriously class act. Tonight she appears with a full band who put in a commanding performance full of soulful swagger. Her voice has an extraordinary purity of tone and makes a perfect blend with the rootsy, rocky half dozen or so numbers performed with sass as well as tenderness.
A version of Wilson Pickett’s Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You slowed things down and highlighted Johnny Henderson’s Hammond before raising the tempo right up with Perfect Storm, a Muscle Shoals-influenced workout. Riding Out The Storm got the hall’s attention with its groove. Closing with the absolute stomper, Sunshine City, this was a captivating set.
As the lights dimmed once more, Walter took to the stage and played a set that enthralled right from the start. Solo heavy, with characteristic growling vocals, in his hands that Strat attacked, screamed, and shredded in the most delightful manner.
The band alternated between a four and five-piece. He’s accompanied by Johnny Griparic on bass, Bob Fridzema looking after the keys, Michael Leasure on drums and Andrew Let, who appears for several numbers as second guitarist. The collective experience of the band amounts to an encyclopaedia of the blues-rock world, and together they lock in those grooves tight, the quality sublime.
Walter was clearly thrilled with the reception and hearty welcome of the crowd and was in great humour throughout. There are many high-energy songs in the set that really flew, such as Wanna Dance from the current album Ordinary Madness, which saw the audience head-nodding, foot-tapping and full-on boogieing.
A few songs in, towards the end of Got A Broken Heart, Walter stated that he was leaving the guys for a minute. Apologising that he did make an effort in wearing a nice shirt especially for us, but he was so hot he may explode, so he was going to have to be like Cher and go for the grand mid-set costume change.
We were treated to an extended jam which showcased Fridzema’s sweet keyboard tones, so a bit of a bonus for us too. Returning to the stage wearing a current tour t-shirt, we speculated that a quick run round the back of the hall to the merch stand took place.
There was plenty of emotional punch, too, in particular from All Out Of Tears, a proper solid slow blues number about grief and loss, performed with searing depth. Walter introduced this by declaring the best tribute we can pay to those who have passed is to live life to the full with integrity. We certainly got a live demonstration of that tonight.
A further unexpected addition came from an impromptu rendering of John Mayall’s Have You Heard About My Baby. Walter explained that he was channelling his old boss John Lee Hooker who used to say ‘if it’s in you, you have to let it come out’ – so he did.
The encore of Bullfrog Blues, doubling up as a throwback to the Canned Heat days (described earlier in the set as ‘a five-year lost weekend’) and a tribute to Rory Gallagher, was ridiculously joyful and energetic.
Tonight demonstrated some of the very best that blues-rock can offer, and ultimately was all about the sheer joy of being alive – long may that continue.