Walter Trout: Thriving With The Blues

Jim Worsley BY

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I considered using the word surviving, instead of thriving, in the title. However, as you will see, Walter Trout has done much more than "just survive" his real life blues. Trout speaks candidly about his struggles and near fatal experience with liver disease and the ensuing transplant. He also spoke with humor, vigor, and a renewed energy and zest for life. Oh, and we talked about music too.

All About Jazz Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

Walter Trout: No problem. Just give me a minute to put my guitar down.

AAJ: Of course, while you do that let me say that the first time I heard you play was way back in 1987 at the legendary Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, CA with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. I didn't know who you were walking in the door, but I sure did by the end of your set. That had to be a blast playing with Mayall.

WT: Well, you know, people sometimes ask me about my sideman years. I was a sideman for seventeen years. The most fun I ever had was playing with John Mayall. It was a blast. He is ridiculously funny when you're out on the road with him. His humor is incredible. Being a bandleader is a talent in itself. He has the knack for keeping things lighthearted. He's one of the best. The music was always very free. He gives you a free range. I can tell you that when I first played with him I had grown up being a student of his older albums with Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and Peter Green. The first couple of gigs we were doing some songs that he had done with Clapton. I was in awe of the tradition and playing the Clapton solos. So I played the solos and afterwards John says to me, "If I had wanted Eric Clapton, I would have hired Eric Clapton! I love the way you play and I want you to give this your own approach." He freed me and I really grew as a musician after that. It was like going to the Harvard University of the Blues. But, you know, with every band you are dealing with personalities and sometimes guys end up hating each other. John was very aware of that and tried to keep things fun. The band may be on stage for two hours, but the guys are basically living and traveling together all the time.

AAJ: It must have indeed been a great education playing and learning with the Father of British Blues.

WT: I can tell you a good John Mayall story. When I did my first solo tour I was still in his band. He was going to take about four months off. So this promoter in Europe says if I put a band together he will book me a little tour. Before I left, John gave me a cassette tape wrapped in brown paper. He said, "Two weeks into the tour you guys are all going to start hating each other. When it reaches a breaking point you unwrap the tape and play it." Sure enough, two weeks into the tour we're all starting to fucking hate each other. So, I unwrapped the tape and played it. It was forty-five minutes of him farting. He went around with a little recorder and every time he needed to fart he recorded it. He had labeled the tape "The Farter of British Blues." So, minutes into the tape, we were all dying of laughter, and it completely broke the ice. Then, when I got sober, John was very proud of me. I gave up cocaine, stopped drinking, and stopped doing blow. Later in the mail I received a package from John. Turned out to be an espresso machine. It came with a note that said, "This will keep you wired." I just love the guy.

AAJ: That's hysterical. It must have been a kick then to have Mayall on your latest record, We're All In This Together. Can you talk about the song "Blues For Jimmy T" that you wrote, and the two of you did together?

WT: Jimmy T was Jimmy Trapp. If you look on like my first ten records or so, you'll see that he was my bassist. Jimmy came up through the ranks playing in bar bands in Orange County back in the early 70's. We were best friends for thirty years. He died in 2005 at the age of 52. It has taken me a long time to even be able to write about him because I really miss him deeply. So, to be able to play that song about my old buddy with my surrogate father is probably, for me, the most emotional number on there. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to it, because it brings up so many feelings.

AAJ: The diversification of fourteen guest artists on the record provides wide-ranging layers of the blues genre. Was it a challenge to write compositions to best fit their individual styles?

WT: It was a challenge, but it was also fun. It was something I took on joyously. Many of the artists are good friends of mine and I was very familiar with their work. Others I took pleasure in getting into their catalog to get a better feel. For Kenny Wayne Shepherd I had a few selections to choose from. So, I still have some in the can. There is one that is kind of an Elmore James kind of thing and another that is a slow minor blues. It was the same with Joe Bonamassa. I decided that we were either going to do some heavy rock deal, or let's do kind of a slow blues. I ended up with the title track. Edgar Winter does such a wide variety of styles of music that I told him I wasn't sure what to do with him. I loved his quote. He said, "Well, my first love is the blues. But when I heard my brother start playing the guitar, I figured he had the blues covered, and I needed to do other stuff."

AAJ: Perhaps the only drawback of having Johnny Winter as your brother.

WT: Exactly. I can just picture them as kids, and Johnny getting better, and better, and better! Anyways, Edgar really loved the song, and I think it came out real well.

AAJ:Changing gears, you may understandably be tired of talking about your battle with liver disease. It's a remarkable story.

WT: No, I'm happy to talk about it, especially if it can help somebody. I found out I had Hepatitis C. I don't know how I got it. Most musicians that are of my age and generation have had it. It's actually pretty prevalent. I did have an insane lifestyle while doing a lot of drugs in my youth. I started getting dizzy spells and incredible cramps in my hands. I would play, and the cramps would close up my hands like claws. It was excruciating. I couldn't really play. I did a tour sitting down. I spent half the set playing harmonica because I couldn't play guitar. So, I just thought I needed magnesium or something. We were in Germany. I woke up at 4 A.M. and I didn't feel right. I got up and walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My stomach was swollen like I had just swallowed a basketball. I looked like I was nine months pregnant. My legs were swollen to the size of an elephant's. I really thought it was because I was taking too much magnesium for the cramps. I came home to see a doctor. I was told that my liver was failing and that I would need a transplant, or that I was going to die. I was worried that my wife and kids might have the Hepatitis C. Fortunately, none of them did. I had lost 120 pounds in three months. This was more than half of my body weight. I was taken to UCLA and put into intensive care. The doctors there told my wife that I was going to die, and that she best start planning for that. The way the transplants were divvied out, I surely wasn't going to get one. Finally, a great blues singer named Curtis Salgado talked to my wife and said that he had gotten a transplant in Omaha, Nebraska. He gave my wife his doctor's number. A call was made, and the next thing I know, I'm off to Omaha. I was carried onto an airplane at LAX. They lifted me into a seat. I ended up being in Omaha for eight months. While I was there waiting for a transplant, I lost my ability to speak and had brain damage. I died a couple of times while I was there. There was one day that I was bleeding profusely, and they just couldn't get it to stop. They poured twenty-two pints of a blood into me to replace what was going out. I was in a coma, so I don't remember any of that. I was still there for another four months after the transplant. I needed lots of therapy to relearn how to walk and talk. When I finally got home, I realized that I didn't know how to play the guitar anymore. It was gone. So, I had to start over. I worked 5-6 hours a day, every day for a year, and it came back.

AAJ: One would think that your first gig back after not playing for two years wouldn't be at the Royal Albert Hall in London. How on earth did that come to be?

WT: Most guys would go down to the corner bar and see what happens. Not me, I went to the Royal Albert Hall. It was a Lead Belly Festival featuring lots of guests. They had Van Morrison, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Burdon, and a bunch of other guys. I only played two songs. I didn't want to play a full set. They had a backing bar band there that we all shared. I counted to four, and that band kicked in, and I was home. I was where I felt the most alive.

AAJ: Go big or go home, right?

WT: Yeah, man. I went big.

AAJ: Seems that you are still going big in the fight against liver disease and creating awareness. Talk a little bit about the British Liver Trust and your involvement with that organization.

WT: Let me say that in addition to the British Liver Trust, I do benefits and advertising for Donate Life America right here in the States. They determine who gets the livers and work with the doctors. I do the same thing for an organization in Norway. It's a mission to get people to sign up to be organ donors. It's my mission to get people to signup. I know what a miracle it is. There are eight life savings organs. So one person could save up to eight people. I've had two different people tell me that they were born blind and had cornea transplants in their twenties. They now both can see perfectly. We just break down and weep when I see them. Every month we lose two thousand people because there are not enough donors. It's a real tragedy.

AAJ: It's most exemplary that you are giving back to society. So, now you feel like you are sixty-six years old going on twenty-two?

WT: I absolutely do. I feel like I am in my twenties. I feel imbued with energy. I pretty much had the disease for years and didn't know. Turns out when I look back, I had chronic fatigue. I was always tired and everything was a chore. I just assumed that I was getting older and that I had been a heavy addict, an alcoholic, you name it, and that I had destroyed my body. Figured it was just the price I paid. I didn't know I had a disease.

AAJ: All that pain and torment was poured into your record Battle Scars. It is lyrically laced with despair and anguish. Was it difficult to relive the experience in order to write about it, or did it prove to be cathartic?

Well, I can tell you that at first, I just wanted to say that I made it, that I was still alive, and everything is great. But I was coming up with lyrics that were so cliché about the flowers and the birds. It was valid in the sense that I was breaking down and weeping at the sound of a bird outside my window. Before I was sick, if a bird was whistling outside my window at 6 A.M., I would have been pissed off because it was waking me up. Now, it sounded so beautiful. So, I told my wife that I didn't know what to do. I had all this music in my head, but I didn't know how to say it. She told me that I needed to write about what happened to me more so than how I feel now. She said I really needed to get that out. Once she said that it was easy. I sat with an acoustic guitar and a recorder on my phone. I still have those recordings of entire songs coming out instantaneously. The song that won song of the year, "Gonna Live Again," came out word for word just as it is. I've never had that experience before, and I doubt I ever will again. I didn't hold back. Those songs are graphic. It was a primal scream. I wrote six of the songs in a period of about five hours. It all just came out of me.

AAJ: Can you tell us a little bit about your wife, Marie, and your family? How many years have you been married?

WT: I met Marie at a show in Denmark in 1990. I knew when I saw her from the stage, before we even spoke. Later, after the show, we talked for about thirty minutes, at which point I told her that she was going to move to America and that we were going to get married, have a family, and grow old together. She looked at me like I was completely out of my mind. I didn't propose or anything like that. I just told her how it was going to be. About a week went by and she decided that I was right. So now, twenty-seven years of marriage later, we have three great kids and are still disgusting in love. Since she has been in the states, she has had a book published [The Blues: Why It Still Hurts So Good] and gotten her PhD. She's well respected in the blues community. She's an amazing, brilliant, wise, intelligent person. When I was sick, we thought we were going to have to sell our house in order to pay for the transplant and take two years off. Marie did a fundraiser. It was the blues community that made it possible for me to take the time off and not have to sell our house. Marie raised a lot of money. It wouldn't have been possible without her and the tremendous support of the blues community. The blues community is an awesome family.

AAJ: You had to be very proud then to have your son Jon on We're All In This Together. One of my favorite songs on the record is "Do You Still Feel Me At All."

Well thanks for that. Jon and I wrote that together. We sat down here in the kitchen and I told him that I wanted him on the record, but that we needed a song. He came back at me with two verses of lyrics. I put them to music and wrote a third verse. He came in and did it with my band, and I thought he nailed it. He plays and sings beautifully on there. The record label chose it as the first single to be released. Here we had all these big names on the record, and they picked the one with my kid. It's pretty cool.

AAJ: Very cool. Kudos to Provogue Records for listening to the music, instead of just picking the biggest star. Another song that stands out is "Other Side of The Pillow" with Charlie Musselwhite.

WT: I just got off a blues cruise that Charlie was also on. He got up and did that song with my band. It was a lot of fun. I'm waiting for it to show up on YouTube. I know that many people were recording it.

AAJ: Have you done many blues cruises?

WT: This was my second one. To be honest, the guy has been trying to get me on there [The Legendary Blues Cruise] for about twelve years. I kept saying no, that I didn't want to be on a boat for a week. But Marie wanted to do it. She did save my life three years ago, so my attitude is, "Whatever you want." We did it last year and thought, man, we could have been doing this for twelve years! It's a cool thing. This one had Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Tab Benoit, and a bunch of other artists. You might not want to listen to blues for a couple of days afterwards. It's an overload. There are five stages that go eighteen hours a day. But it was awesome.

AAJ: Your touring schedule for many years has been heavier in Europe than in America. I'm seeing more and more stateside shows now.

WT: Yes. Way back when I did my first record in Europe, I had a number one record over Jon Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, and others. I did that once. I have been able to hold on to most of that fan base. I played a free concert at The Hague[Netherlands] and it drew five hundred thousand people. This album, We're All In This Together, has done wonders for me. It was number one on the Billboard blues chart for twenty-three weeks in the United States. It was also number one in Germany, Scandinavia, Denmark, England, and Australia. I will be playing at the Byron Bay Blues Festival with Robert Plant and Lionel Richie in Australia. But I mostly have shows here in America over the next several months, including opening up for Aerosmith at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May.

AAJ: And playing at The Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach [San Diego CA]. My wife and friends have our loft seats, and are ready for a great night of music.

WT: That's great!

An Alluring Live Bite

The evening belonged to the grit and hard-edged blues of guitarist/vocalist Walter Trout. Before the night was through, however, we were treated to an entire school of fish. Trout's sons Jon and Michael joined in on the jam, on guitar and drums, respectively.

Drummer Michael Leasure, keyboardist Sammy Avila, and bassist Danny Avila provided a powerful and assured soundscape that allowed the senior Trout to boldly do his thing. He did that, and then some, in an over two-hour show at The Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach (San Diego), CA on Sunday night, March 18th. And yes, it was even more of a family affair as Sammy and Danny are father and son, as well.

Early on, Trout paid tribute in words and in song to the legendary B.B. King. He recalled, "When I was a young guitarist I met B.B. King. He spent an hour with me that day and inspired me to play the blues. He was the greatest bluesman that ever lived." Now some fifty years later, the sixty-six year old Trout emotionally went into "Say Goodbye to the Blues." It was played with a passion and intensity that the legend himself would have been proud of.

Trout talked briefly about his horrific near death experience. (For more on his successful battle with liver disease see Walter Trout: Thriving With The Blues). Moreover, he spoke about how happy he is to be alive, feeling well, and able to have fun playing again. Later, he readdressed the issue by imploring everyone in the audience to sign up on Donate Life. "We all have eight vital organs that can save someone's life," remarked Trout, "Each one of us could save up to eight lives." The message was important, stated succinctly, and well appreciated by the capacity crowd.

Battle Scars is the album that Trout wrote and recorded that graphically detailed his ordeal. It is lyrically moving and musically riveting. The gut wrenching ballad "Please Take Me Home" was written for his wife, Marie. It was performed with a lot of feeling and a whole lot of heart. The near death anguish of "Almost Gone" then led into the rocked up nightmare of "Haunted By The Night."

Trout's only break in the two-hour plus extravaganza was Leasure's rhythmically charged drum solo and the funked up center stage bass run delivered by Danny Avila.

His son Jon joined him on the title track from his most recent release, We're All In This Together. Joe Bonamassa plays the duet with the elder Trout on the record. Jon is clearly a chip off the old block and filled those shoes nicely. They then rolled in to "Goin' Down." This blues/rock standard has been covered by many over the years, perhaps most famously by Freddie King and Jeff Beck. Trout put his own signature on it and brought the house down in doing so.

After the show, when asked about a set list, Trout smiled and told me that he didn't have one. He went on to say. "I have never used a set list. We just make sure we are in the same key and go for it." Well, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The former member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Canned Heat showed us why he continues to have a huge following around the world with yet another impassioned performance. He can change tempos and directions with the best of them. More importantly, he plays with the soul of a consummate blues man.

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