Toby Walker

Toby Walker
Shake, Shake Mama

Band In The Hand Records

By Tony Del Rey
December 2011

Can’t imagine there being a blues honk somewhere that gives ear to guitar-picker, Toby Walker’s newest disc, Shake, Shake Mama, and doesn’t come away from the experience sporting a giant-sized man-crush on the guy. Heck, any player who can hold down both rhythm and lead, sing on key with near-perfect pitch and keep a beat with the heel of his boot ought to be canonized for sainthood, or at the very least, nominated for a Grammy.

Such is the criteria for greatness in a genre that remains fiercely loyal to fixed forms and established arrangements. It’s all about the standards, baby, and Toby Walker has them down to a fine science. But much to his credit, Shake, Shake Mama is no scattershot collection of traditional covers, but rather a panoply of fine blues pieces encompassing a broad range of sub-genres that include country, rags and folk tunes.

It’s no secret that blues fans would just as soon jump on a knife than listen to some highbrow musical dilettante make a mockery of their beloved Robert Johnson by recording an unfaithful cover of his work. Not to worry, Walker’s unadorned, but highly spirited version of “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” would do little to disappoint them.

I use the word “unadorned” because much like the material found on Johnson’s seminal work, Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Walker mostly performs unaccompanied by another instrument. The rhythm is provided solely by his method of acoustic guitar playing, which skillfully marries the left hand’s gritty slide work to the metronomic, slap-leather tempo kept with the right to produce a driving, locomotive beat.

Though Walker doesn’t play slide on every track, he’s mastered the technique so thoroughly that even his fingered solos are performed without missing a measure of the relentless, chugging rhythm he creates for himself. The man literally produces the sound of two guitars, plus percussion, being played simultaneously, with no overdubs required.

What little backing there is on Shake, Shake Mama derives from a stand-up bass provided by Walker’s wife, Carol, whose appearances on the album are sporadic and, at times, nearly inaudible; her patterns being routinely overpowered by Walker’s one-man tour de force.

Fortunately, the small production glitch matters little in light of the album’s stellar song selection. One of its finest moments occurs when Walker dons a 1960 Harmony electric for Muddy Waters’ “I Got To Love Somebody,” (aka “Look No Further”). The guitar sound is warm, the feel, rocking - reminiscent of Waters’ late-period work with Johnny Winter - and it provides a nice backdrop for Walker to deliver Muddy’s homespun lines:

“You need grits… Go to the grocery… You want fish… Go to the sea… You need some love… Look no further… Just come on home with me!”

The fact that Walker covers two more Muddy songs - “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “She’s 19 Years Old” - ought to give his listeners some indication of the man’s reverence for the lineage of blues music, the Delta variety in particular. Incidentally, that lineage descends directly from the inscrutable Robert Johnson to his most noteworthy protégé, he being Muddy Waters.

Some additional standouts covered on Shake, Shake Mama include 12-string maestro, Hudie Ledbetter’s “Midnight Special,” Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “What’s The Matter Now” and the album’s closer, a bawdy country blues number penned by Bo Carter (an artist known for his risqué lyric writing), titled “Cigarette Blues.”

“Those women down in Dallas… They can never get enough… I take my cigarette out… They all want a puff… Smoke my cigarette, baby… Give it a real good draw…. Won’t you smoke my cigarette, baby… ‘Til those ashes hit the floor!”

Not exactly “warning sticker” material by today’s standards, but in 1936, the year Carter originally recorded the tune, “Cigarette Blues” would have been regarded as highly indecent, to say the least.

But isn’t that just like the blues? With its concupiscent lyrical content, its extensive use of double entendre, and - lest we forget to mention - the numerous references to squeezed lemons and spent whatnot’s celebrated in song. No wonder the blues has always been considered music from the other side of the tracks! While it’s unlikely that those arbiters of good musical taste, the Grammy committee, will be sending around an embarrassingly big car to fetch him for his work on Shake, Shake Mama, I come away from the experience of listening to it with a strong sense that Toby Walker won’t seem to mind the snub.

<- back to Features