Paul Metsa & Willie Walker
Live on Highway 55
A well-respected singer and songwriter since the 1970s, the Minnesota-based Paul Metsa is a noted scholar, activist, promoter, statesman, and author, all in connection with his musical endeavors. Willie Walker is simply one of the best soul singers in the business, probably best known today to those outside the Twin Cities area for his recent work with the Butanes–three albums’ worth of very fine original soul and blues material by Curtis Obeda–and for the coveted handful of sides he recorded for Checker and Goldwax in the ’60s.
To my knowledge, despite Walker and Metsa’s long-term acquaintance and geographic proximity, Live on Highway 55 marks their first recording together. The duo proves to be a natural pairing, even though each artist is working a bit outside his comfort zone: Metsa stays completely off of the microphone, and plays a set that is slightly different from his usual folk and blues repertoire; and Walker, who (in spite of a few catalog items, like his vintage single of “Ticket to Ride” and a cover of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” on his first, eponymous long-player) generally favors soul music, stretches effortlessly into material like the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and a bluesy “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that relies less on the version by Bobby Womack than on Bessie Smith or Derek & The Dominos.
Walker’s voice has aged appealingly, developing a controlled raspiness–a frayed quality reminiscent of Eddie Hinton or Johnnie Taylor–more pronounced than it held in the “Wee” Willie Walker days, and gained in complexity and emotional resonance, while retaining all the suppleness and smooth glide of his idol Sam Cooke’s (his show-stopping interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” has to be heard). Metsa rises admirably to the task of evoking the well-known, sometimes quite complicated original versions of songs like “My Girl” or “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.” Whether he is converting “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” into a minor groove à la “Help Me,” or adding a succinct blues guitar solo, sparkling with harmonics, to “Bring It On Home” (another Cooke classic), his accompaniment is adept, dynamic, and inventive. He has clearly internalized these songs to a rare degree; even without Walker’s amazing vocal, the depth of Metsa’s arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” absolutely puts to shame the paint-by-numbers version released last year by an acclaimed, and usually terrific, guitarist who was a long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band.
The challenges Metsa and Walker offer each other notwithstanding, Live on Highway 55 is not as adventurous in its selection of material as, say, Bettye LaVette’s albums for the Anti- label, but it is just fine; those who swore they never again needed to hear “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “Ain’t No Sunshine” will be forced to eat their words. Nor is it perfect in every aspect–Walker sings the wrong words to Little Willie John’s “Fever” every time the chorus comes around, and I guess we’ll have to wait for a studio record to hear Metsa’s guitar sound its best (miked up, that is, instead of amplified through a pickup). But it represents far more than a souvenir for those who attended the live in-studio show in April 2013 that produced the disc. Live on Highway 55 documents a fruitful partnership and a beautiful session that rewards repeated listening.
I purchased this CD from the artist.