Sure, it's easy enough to enjoy Tom Walbank's performances, both on record and in person, regardless of how much you know about blues. He is, after all, an engaging guy. His music couldn't be more accessibly, fundamentally human--a redoubt of raw energy, passionate and booty-shaking. He likes to get you moving. When you see his show, you'll know you've been out, and you'll talk about it for days.
Still, because he loves it so, Walbank makes this music look easier than it is. And to know a tenth of what he's learned about the blues will make you not only a better Walbank fan, but a more knowledgeable consumer of rock, soul, country and even hip-hop music.
Walbank himself learned it all from scratch; he grew up in Devon, England. Smitten at 15 by a brief clip in the movie The Blues Brothers (about 30 seconds of John Lee Hooker accompanied by Big Walter Horton on harmonica), Walbank went out the very next day and bought himself a harmonica (key of C, best for blues' common open G tuning, he says) and started playing. His brother encouraged him with a gift of a John Lee Hooker album, but, says Walbank, "It was a mid-'60s recording with (Jamaican blues guitarist) Eddie Kirkland. It was too heavy for me at that time. Too deep. Too dark. I didn't know enough about life, I think.
"So I went out and bought Hard Again by Muddy Waters. That was a big learning curve. I listened to that album again and again and again. James Cotton was the harmonica player on that album." Walbank followed up with investments in a couple of albums by harmonica great Sonny Terry, and before long, he was devouring the music of Son House, Robert Johnson and Robert Nighthawk, whose slide guitar style linked the old, Delta blues to the emerging, electric Chicago styles.
Walbank later moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where, after a stint tending bar, he began performing four or five nights a week. It was there he met his wife, I Madonnari artist Leia Maahs, whose home was in the San Francisco Bay area. The couple moved to Northern California in 1997, but the expense of living there ultimately inspired their migration to Tucson. By that time, Walbank had picked up an old resonator guitar, and was learning to play it in self defense. "I would be looking around for guitar players, and I would find people who were technically very good but didn't have any balls.
"I was spoiled with a very good guitarist in Scotland, Steve O'Connor. If we were playing, and the energy was going well, we would go into overdrive--start sweating and like pumping that music out and then drop it on a dime and go soft again, very dynamic. I couldn't find anyone who was interested in playing like that. I'd meet people who would go, 'Oh! You play blues.' And then would be off on some Eric Clapton lead guitar kind of thing."
Walbank started out playing his resonator at open-mic nights before he started getting real gigs in Tucson. "But then I got out the old Danelectro," he says. "It definitely gives an edge to the slide playing. I was moving to more of a Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James kind of style, which suited me fine. But I was still basically playing juke joint blues. A lot of my licks are Son House or Muddy Waters or Elmore James. "
Walbank borrows freely from the seminal blues players he most admires. "There's a one-man band from Memphis called Doctor Ross the Harmonica Boss. He played in open G and had a harmonica rack and drums, like a forerunner to Bob Log. Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed I think was overlooked because his brand of blues isn't say as forceful as, say, Howlin' Wolf's or Charlie Patton's, but he was the biggest seller back then."
As much as he borrows, though, Walbank contributes, too. All of the songs that sound like blues standards on his new release, Mudhook Vol. 2 (a portmanteau of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker), are actually originals, combining ideas and licks he's picked up from the masters.
"There are so many different facets of what I want to do," he says. "There aren't too many recordings of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker playing together. My thing is that if I can play a song where I can mix up a bit of (Mississippi) Fred McDowell or Big Joe Williams or Muddy or John Lee Hooker in one song, it's a treat for my ears. There's not that many albums of them all playing together. That's what I like doing."
Luckily, he's found a band that can make it all work for him. "Mike Bagesse (guitar and baritone), Dimitri Manos (drums), they're very sympathetic players. They're aware of moving as a unit, kind of ensemble playing. Mike knows when to fill in; Dimitri is a fabulous drummer. So many drummers I know will fall into playing rock blues. It drives me insane. There are so many different subtleties with blues drumming--the hokum style, the jug band style when people were just using washboards with bells stuck on them--they would get all these different sounds."
Walbank's not particularly sensitive about being a white guy, let alone a Brit, playing old, black blues for mostly white audiences. "Obviously, I'm not from the South; I'm not of a certain age. I'm very much an anomaly from my generation. But the generation from back then, the black folks, they've all been very supportive. If they say it's OK and support me and say carry on doing it, I could care less.
"White people didn't start playing black people's music in the '50s. That kind of thing has been going on pretty much since blues was invented. You always get poor white people living in the same vicinity as poor black people, like down in Mississippi, like Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. The interesting thing is Howlin' Wolf's trademark howl; he said in interviews he wanted to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers. That's one example of the other way around."
And Tom Walbank is emerging as another.