It's been a long ride, but Walter Trout's made up for a lot of lost time. He's gone from blues sideman to hit European rocker to American blues guitar staple in the course of 30 years, building a fervent fan base that appreciates his eclectic tastes.
Trout started playing original songs in New Jersey, during the late '60s and early '70s before a California vacation convinced the musician there was more money to be made on the West Coast club circuit. His band bailed on the relocation plan one by one, but Trout followed through.
He endured some lean times including a couple years as a heroin addict, during which he stopped playing guitar entirely. But fortune shined on him one sunny Los Angeles day on the Redondo Beach pier in 1977.
"It was a bunch of old black guys jamming," he said. "I sat in and they asked me if I wanted to join their band." It happened to be John Lee Hooker's backup band. For the next decade, he'd play with Big Momma Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield and Canned Heat, among others.
"I just kind of fell from gig to gig, but the whole time, I had this dream that I would do what I'm doing now," he said. "That was really first and foremost in my goals and in my heart: to have my own band and write my music for it."
While playing with Canned Heat, Trout met the man who would ultimately make that possible. He met John Mayall at one of the gigs, and was invited to join Mayall's Bluesbreakers, one-time home to legendary guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, who'd by then left the Rolling Stones and temporarily rejoined the Bluesbreakers.
Under Mayall's tutelage, Trout began to blossom. Although he initially tried too hard to fill the shoes of those that came before, Mayall's urged Trout to give up trying to be Clapton and assert his own personality. For several years, Trout honed his chops when a mishap brought his talents to the forefront. One night in Denmark, John Mayall got sick and the show had to go on with him, leaving Coco Montoya and Trout to alternate fronting the band.
"We did all kinds of stuff we wouldn't normally do, like 'Hey Joe,'" Trout said. "We came off stage, and this guy comes up and says, 'I'm from Elektra Denmark, and I want to offer you a record deal.' Then the promoter there, who booked Mayall said, 'If you make a record, I'll book a tour.'"
Although during this time Trout was still playing with a band back in California, the offer represented his first real chance to make a go of it. After a live album in '90, he released his solo studio debut that same year, "Prisoner of a Dream," which produced the European radio chart-topper "The Love That We Once Knew."
"I still have the charts where I was at No. 1, Bon Jovi was No. 2 and Madonna was No. 3 and Bryan Adams was No. 4," he said. "In the course of a month, I went from little clubs to a show in a Holland park before 500,000 people."
ERASING THE GAP
Trout soon had a large European following, although the impact stateside was limited by the fact that his first five albums weren't released in America. For a decade, he has been steadily touring and releasing albums in this country, erasing the gap. He will join a half dozen other blues artists for a 4 p.m. Saturday benefit concert at Oklahoma City Limits to raise money for the Oklahoma Blues Society and the Mental Health Association of Central Oklahoma.
To celebrate his 20 years as a solo artist, Trout this year released "Unspoiled by Progress," an odds-and-sods follow-up to 2008's "The Outsider." It collects 14 previously unreleased live performances and a handful of studio sessions from across his career.
"I have a large archive of stuff, and I had to sit for days and days to go through it all," he said. "It was a balancing act between trying to find good performances and good recordings. I found some of the best live performances I've ever done, but the recordings were not anywhere near releasable."
If there's one thing that characterizes Trout and his albums, it's his felicitous tastes. Although a blues player, his version of blues features plenty of rock flavor and rootsy echoes.
"I like it all. I want to play it all. I don't want to be stuck in a corner," he said. "That freaks out the purists, but I can't be bothered with them."'
Blues to Cure the Blues featuring Walter Trout, Stinnett Brothers, Dan Danger Band, Three Legged Dog and more peform at 4 p.m. Saturday at Oklahoma City Limits, 4801 S. Eastern. "Chris Parker