Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tom Walbank

The 17th Street Market in Tucson is a large, windowless grocery store with a staggering array of Asian foods, and oddly, guitars, and a tiny stage for performers. It was there I found Tom Walbank's trio: Mike Bagesse: Bass, Dimitri Manos: Drums. Walbank is a slender man under 40 from England who plays and sings gritty Delta blues. His repertoire is vast (and all memorized). His voice has the gutty, raspy, emotional intensity of a Louisiana black man. It was startling to hear his English accent when he spoke between tunes.

Tom plays harp (harmonica) hard, fast, with amazing technique. He's right up there with Junior Wells. I’ve never heard anything like it. His guitar work, especially slide, is skilled. Walbank describes his sound as “John Hammond with a John Lee Hooker obsession,” and I think that’s about right, but he’s more than an imitator. His strongest feature is the way he uses his voice as an instrument. It is thoughtful, artistic, and effective. And I think his voice is actually better than Hammond’s.

I bought a CD he was selling that day, Excalibooty! (2002), a mix of live and studio tracks, many written by him and collaborator Doug Smith (guitar). The collection is a lively footstomper that showcases Walbank’s considerable talents, although the sound quality is not as crisp as one would like – as is often the case with “home-made” CDs. According to his web page he has no record label. He is easily good enough to be a big star, but maybe he hasn’t differentiated himself enough. Why would you want to hear Hooker/Muddy Waters imitations when the real things are available? Walbank is an interpreter, but he needs to capitalize on his fine vocal talent before he gets too old, if he wants to hit the big time (which, of course, not everybody wants to do. I don’t know anything about him personally). Excalibooty! is marked “unavailable” on Amazon, but you can sample his sound there from his album, Mudhook, Vol. 2 (2006). He played some of those tunes at the 17th Street Market. Well worth the price.

(17th Street Market: A tough gig)

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