Howlin' Wolf Does Not Wear Panties
Walter Daniels, Black Joe Lewis, and the Tabernaclin' Blues
"It's designed like one of those old Wilson Pickett Atlantic records!"
Walter Daniels holds up a 7-inch vinyl EP to be admired. The way it rests in his hands, he may as well have mined a vein of gold. Maybe he has. It's obvious Daniels grew up worshipping at the church of vinyl, not only in his youth, but throughout the two decades he's been performing and recording.
Sitting outside Little City on the Drag, conversation competes with traffic as a truck pulls up in the street. It heaves a pneumatic sigh as it idles and temporarily obliterates Walter's words though not his enthusiasm. That's evident in his lively blue eyes, glittering as the talk spans his local musical history and interests, but that sounds mundane compared to the panoply of bands he's played and recorded with: Bloodsucking Go-Devils, the Ideals, Hickoids, Jack O'Fire, Hank Street Ramblers, Gay Sportscasters, Buick MacKane, Revelators, Texacala Jones & Her T. J. Hookers, the Drop-Outs, Walter Daniels & the Gospel Clodhoppers, and Pork.
More recently, his harp-and-horn double whammy punched up Big Foot Chester, Eugene Chadbourne, the Crack Pipes, Oblivians, and current band South Filthy, yet what excites him today is working with a young blues shouter named Black Joe Lewis. If it's got anything to do with modern lo-fi blues, Walter Daniels is up front and in your face.
Dudes With Farmer Genes
What are the blues? That's a question as old as the musical form itself, but don't expect an easy answer from Walter Daniels. He'd rather show than tell you. Daniels was born in Chicago and raised in a variety of places including Louisiana and Iowa before his family settled in the Woodlands, outside Houston. He arrived in Austin in 1981 and, like many of his peers, found himself mesmerized by local music.
"I was deliriously happy when Antone's on Guadalupe was open," he enthuses. "I went there all the time. Like, 'All right! I can see the greats!' I got to see the T-Birds countless times. And Hubert Sumlin, he radiates a joy for the blues. Those older guys have a lot of vigor.
"I worked at the Beach Cabaret in the mid-Eighties. It put me in the vibe to try playing music. There wasn't much crossover between Antone's and the Beach, but we would have blues bands it was very much an anything-goes type of place. Songwriters at happy hour and the Offenders at night ... Hickoids, Poison 13. It's good to work both sides of the stage, get the perspective of someone who has to mop the place up or serve you beer."
That lesson learned, Daniels formed his first band in 1986, the Bloodsucking Go-Devils, whose alt-rock output is relegated to one Glitch sampler record, My Girl, Her Name Is Ralph. With "Bloodsucking" eventually excised from the band's moniker, they continued as the Go Devils. Around that time, Daniels also joined a post-Raul's version of the Ideals with Davy Jones and Dick Hayes while paying as much attention to the frenetic punk-blues of Poison 13 as well as the trad sounds of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. While dancing the band shuffle, Daniels wed Helen Macdonald in 1991.
"Married my sweetheart 14 years ago," he beams. "I'm such a lucky guy. She helps make my music possible. She's so very supportive, the No. 1 South Filthy fan. We've got two girls, Lily Jean, 10, and Emma Lou, 5. Lily has recorded with me once. She's a piano player. Did some improvisation and did quite well!"
A Raul's and Club Foot-era regular and darling of the New Wave scene with her late sister Evelyn, the vivacious redheaded Helen grew up with brothers who also played in local bands, Robert recording harmonica for Scratch Acid and Angus playing with the Jeffersons and the Crybabies. She relates her husband's work ethic to his background. "Walter comes from a farming background, and his approach to music is the same: just keep doing it, every single day. It pays off. It started as an Iowa thing, but it's an Austin, Texas, thing now. Dudes with farmer genes rock."
Dudes with farmer genes rock. That unfettered assessment resonates with truth as well as history. So many of the trad bluesmen and women, especially from the South, worked the land. It imbued them with a never-forgotten sense of what blues really is: a feeling.
Blues may be the feeling of the blistering sun while picking cotton like Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. Hear gutbucket Delta blues spinning out of the grooves and feel the ache in the muscles and the pain in the back and what a relief it was to shake it loose with a few good verses. It's what makes gospel on Sunday morning so joyous after moaning at midnight on Saturday. It's what makes the music of Charley Patton and Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside palpable in an urban setting.
Blues is what electrified Walter Daniels.
Meet Me in the Bottom
"When I started playing with Tim Kerr, people took notice of what I was doing and that refined what I could or couldn't do," explains Daniels. "Before, I was all over the map, trying to do anything. Playing with Tim, that was fun."
"Fun" is a benign way to describe the incendiary Jack O'Fire, the band Daniels and Kerr formed in the early Nineties that fired blues into the alt-rock pipeline. Kerr's experience as a founding member of the Big Boys and Poison 13 fueled a love for the blues that wasn't sated by punk funk or alt-soul. For Jack O'Fire, that meant Willie Dixon as well as Joy Division, Booker T. and Frank Zappa, Blind Willie McTell and the Pretty Things.
Daniels' lead man status dominated the image of Jack O'Fire. His strapping stature backed the hard blues he blew on harp and the dark wail of his tenor sax. A vocal style gleaned as much from Mississippi as from Chicago or Texas marked him as a keeper of the blue flame. Teamed together, the two burned through the early Nineties with a series of vinyl releases that helped shape blues for the mohawk-and-tattoo generation. With titles such as Bring Me the Head of Jon Spencer, Clothes Makes the Man, Cool, and OK Class, Let's Review, Jack O'Fire recut Howlin' Wolf with a black leather edge and washed Sonny Boy Williamson in the fountain of youth.
"Walter Daniels was great to play with because he was not boxed into the 'style' of blues," Tim Kerr reflected on his former bandmate. "But he understood the spirit of its freedom."
The freedom that came with Jack O'Fire also marked Big Foot Chester, the blues band Daniels formed with friends from Lord High Fixers, Poison 13, and the Hickoids. Named for one of Howlin' Wolf's aliases, Big Foot Chester was born on Wolf's birthday in 1995. The band bent tough blues with nail-spitting vocals and rough harmonica over two CDs, including Devil In Me in 1996 and Tabernaclin' in 1998, plus notable vinyl releases. Big Foot Chester shed the crossover influences of Jack O'Fire in favor of reckless blues while fitting Hank Williams next to the Misfits. "Big Foot Chester," Daniels recalls, "had some wild nights, that's for sure."
Not all of Daniels' guidance came from the blues greats; some of it comes from his own children. "My harp case is always open. They love listening to all manner of music and let me know when something is really good. I was playing Candyland with Emma Lou. I put on this hardcore stomp from Junior Kimbrough, and her head bobbed throughout the entire CD. When the kids tune something out, I get the idea I have to think about the record again: Is it bad?
"They've both heard Howlin' Wolf. We were out camping when Lily was small. She was changing clothes and said, 'Daddy, I think the Howlin' Wolf doesn't wear panties.'"
"I told her, 'You are right. The Howlin' Wolf does not wear panties.'"
Eric Clapton Sucks!
"I probably shouldn't have said that."
Walter covers his eyes for a fleeting moment when reminded of a quote he gave to a punk magazine not long ago about Eric Clapton. "I like what Doug Sahm said. Doug, who's one of my great heroes I came to him late but God, he's it. That's what I want to hear more and more of. He said, 'You come play second guitar in my band! We'll show [Clapton] how to play.'"
And it's not that Clapton isn't a master bluesman. He is. Yet that brand of dandified blues is light years from the sweaty poverty and juke joint honk of those who originally inspired the English guitarist. He's lost to newer audiences who see him as an overpriced, overrated dinosaur shilling the blues.
"What I really wanna do with blues is play it so young people will get into it. I have respect for the form and think it can be interpreted in different ways. When I heard the Gun Club or Poison 13, I thought, 'This is an idiom. I can take blues songs in this manner.' I worked at Sound Exchange in the Nineties and a part of you wonders if there's a window of time where you might be able to sink into a genre. If that window closes, the listener might not ever be receptive to it. I hope young people are hearing it. I want it to stay around. And for them to relate to it.
"I hope no one thinks I'm cheapening the music. I'm not. I like to get good players and say, 'We're playing this chord and there'll be no changes!' And I've been trying chromatic harmonica. It's the harmonica you've seen Stevie Wonder play, with black keys like the piano, a diatonic. You hit that button and you can play in literally any scale, classical or whatever. I did a soundtrack with it. I'm liking it, but I have a long way to go. It has limitations, but it has great possibilities. Harmonica is the mother of the band."
South of Filthy
Besides playing with Black Joe Lewis and putting together a Christmas band called the Blitzens, Daniels' musical heart lies in South Filthy, a swaggering Texas-meets-Memphis garage blues outfit he's played and toured with since 2002. The band's excellent releases include You Can Name It Yo' Mammy If Ya Wanna ... on CD and Crackin' Up on vinyl, due soon on CD. South Filthy features Daniels on harmonica and tenor sax, guitarists Jack Yarber and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, bassist Rice Moorehead, and drummer Mike Buck, who's known a thing or two about the blues since he recorded on the first Fabulous Thunderbirds album.
"With South Filthy, I can sing two or three songs and then say to Jack or Jeffrey, what do you want to do?" says Daniels. "It's interesting playing with those guys from Memphis. There's some intense Texas-Tennessee rivalry going on, but we coexist well. Jeffrey tells wonderful stories, like Red Sovine, tugging at your heart. He's done a few recitations, which I want to do someday; model my experiences as school bus driver like one of those 'Luke the Drifter' records. 'I used to drive a bus in South Austin, lemme tell you about it.' Hope to get to that some time."
And the future? Ah, there's a truly bright direction. Daniels sees the national revival that Fat Possum Records brought in the Nineties as creating a living legacy. "And I got to jam with T-Model Ford," he adds.
"I love working with Black Joe Lewis and the Weary Boys, and I gotta give a big shout out to Chili Cold Blood. They have an R.L. Burnside kind of sound. They're playing real exciting blues. Scott Biram is tearing it up. To see him work a room is something. Ted Roddy's an incredible player. John Schooley's doing it real well.
"Doug Sahm could do anything he wanted to. He swung in every style. One time me and Evan ran into Doug and Doug started chatting up Evan. 'Hey man, what are ya doin'?' Evan talked but wasn't saying the name of our band. Finally, I spoke up and said, "We're in the Gay Sportscasters.' Doug looks at Evan, he looks at me and says, 'Naaaaw. No. That can't be.'
"Maybe Doug didn't get the joke. It was Jeff Smith's humor. I don't think it really matters because he got the music. I think you gotta have some irreverence. The humor is part of what I want. Got enough troubles as it is. There are some topics I stay away from. Even though I have worked on the farm, I don't want to use that imagery. I don't want to be in a situation where I'm singing something and going, 'God, what was I thinking!' It happened to me at [San Antonio's] Tacoland once, singing a punk rock song called 'Slave Girl.' Midway through I thought, 'I won't do this song again.'
"I hope we get more mixing of genres. What's good for punk or blues or country is good for all people. I'm not dismissing tradition, but diverse sounds are more fun. Hopefully, people will get up off their couches and go see some of the great bands. There's a ton of them. That's something Tim Kerr pointed me in the direction of. No boundaries."
Frankie Lee Sims, "She Likes to Boogie Real Low"
Walter Daniels' 10 Classic Blues Favorites
Little Walter Jacobs, "Blue and Lonesome"
Billy Bizor, "Screwdriver"
J.B. Lenoir, "Feelin' Good"
Jessie Mae Hemphill, "Feel It in My Heart"
Big Three Trio, "Big Boat Up the River (Somebody Tell That Woman)"
Junior Wells, "Need Me a Car"
Mississippi Fred McDowell & Johnny Woods, "Shake 'Em on Down"
Skip James, "I'm So Glad"
Othar Turner & the Rising Star Drum & Fife Band, "Shimmy She Wobble"
The Gun Club, "Preaching the Blues"
Walter Daniels' 10 Modern Blues Classics
The Crack Pipes, "Snakes in My Veins"
Poison 13, "Co'dine"
Elmo Williams/Hezekiah Early, "Insane Instrumental"
Chili Cold Blood, "Toe Taggin' Mama"
'68 Comeback, "Three Time Loser"
John Schooley and His One Man Band, "I Can Drive You Faster"
Ted Roddy, "Bobby's Blues"
Kim Wilson, "Trust My Baby"
Captain Beefheart, "Plastic Factory"