There have been plenty of projects paying tribute to the music of legendary harmonica player and singer Little Walter (Walter Jacobs) over the years, but that didn’t stop modern-day harp master Billy Branch and his band The Sons of Blues from undertaking the task as well on their newest album. With one of the best harmonica players in the business today covering the songs of one of blues’ all-time greats, we wouldn’t expect the result to be anything less than superb, and that’s exactly what we get on Roots and Branches – The Songs of Little Walter (Alligator Records), as the band rolls through such gems as “Juke”, “Hate to See You Go”, “Mellow Down Easy”, “Just Your Fool” and more.
Laced with Branch’s crisp, smooth vocals and brilliant playing, the 14 songs here are much more than straight rehashes of Little Walter’s classics, with the band frequently adding its own energy and touches — including, for example, some prominent work from both pianist Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi and guitarist Giles Corey throughout — to make the tracks just as entertaining and listenable today as in their original forms. From grittier, more uptempo selections like “Hate to See You Go” and “Boom Boom Out Go the Lights” and swinging tracks such as the opening “Nobody But You” and “You’re So Fine” to softer, creeping numbers including “Blue and Lonesome” and “Last Night” and a jazzy, swaying “One More Chance With You”, everything here is quite delightful, with particularly standout tracks including a funky “Just Your Fool/Key to the Highway” medley, a “Blues with a Feeling” that’s as absolutely genuine as they come, a grooving “Mellow Down Easy”, the vibrant, bouncy instrumental “Roller Coaster” and a “My Babe” that alternates between island-breezy and swinging.
A shuffling, heavily reworked interpretation of the instrumental “Juke” helps take off some of the edge of the original, with the midtempo “It’s Too Late Brother” and a few touching stories from Little Walter’s daughter Marion Diaz rounding out the album.
Fortunately for us all, it’s not “too late brother” to pick up a copy of this gem; if you’re looking for a solid contemporary tribute to one of the genre’s greatest performers, there “ain’t no needa’ goin’ no further” than Roots and Branches!