A Soledad brother is a revolutionary from another time. The term referred to three African-American men, George Jackson, John Cluchette and Fleeta Drumgo, charged with killing a guard at California's Soledad prison. The men were acquitted of the crime, and became the focus of a movement for prison reform. The trio got nationwide attention when Jackson's younger brother took a machine gun into a Marin county courthouse in 1970 and took a judge hostage demanding the release of the three, but was killed outside the courtroom. Jackson, who wrote lurid accounts of the prison system's horrors in his best-selling books Letters From Prison and Soledad Brother, was later killed during an escape attempt brandishing a gun allegedly supplied by Angela Davis.
Thirty years later, a trio of white boys from Detroit are using the name for a stripped-down, punked-up version of raw blues that mixes Bo Diddley with Big Joe Williams, the Rolling Stones, Sonny Boy Williamson and Fred McDowell. Guitarist Johnny Walker admits it was pretty ballsy to name his band Soledad Brothers, but swears his motives were sincere. "Live At Soledad Penitentiary was my favorite Hooker record, and because of that I started reading a little bit about the Soledad brothers and thought that what the hell, these guys are kinda like modern day Jesse Jameses, like anti-heroes, you know? People just don't name their sports teams after things or people or animals that you disrespect. We named our band after people that we had respect for."
Even though the trio--Oliver Henry on guitar, sax and vocals, Ben Swank on drums and Walker on vocals and guitar--are serious about the music, they have a lot of fun with it. It's no back porch twelve bar woke up this morning rehash, but a raucous rough and tumble musical explosion that sounds like Hound Dog Taylor fronting the MC5.
The influences are obvious. On "Teen Age Heart Attack," from the group's latest album, Soledad Brothers--Live, you can hear snatches of the Stones' "Happy" and "Brown Sugar." "That's a blatant Stones rip-off," Walker laughs. "I'm not ashamed of that, and I don't claim that it's anything original."
What is original in their blues format is the take no prisoners attitude that Walker brings to the stage. At the end of the live disc, he can be heard telling the "punk ass kids" in the audience to go home, get a job, telling 'em they don't know shit from shinola, or their ass from a hole in the ground. Asked what the crowd did to piss him off, he says it's all in good fun. "Aw, that's just Detroit. All my friends stand up front at my shows and heckle me--it's just part of the fun. It's good-natured kidding, it's not a big deal. But I guess I do sound kinda rough on the kids there, don't I," he says, breaking up. "I love it when people heckle me, cause how you gonna heckle a guy with a mic? You may say something wittier than me but I'm gonna say something louder."
The attitude and the music has gotten Walker some attention from some high profile musicians. Jack White of the White Stripes has produced two of the Brothers' albums. Walker says his involvement with White started after a show in Detroit. "This chubby little kid with this funny haircut came up to me and started asking me how to play slide guitar. And he offered to carry my amplifier out of the club for me, and that was Jack. Then he said, 'why don't you come on up and I'll record you on my four track in my living room,' and Ben and I went up and he showed me how to do some recording stuff, and I showed him how to play slide guitar."
Walker says that White has been too busy recently with his own projects to do anything with him lately, but he was "the idea guy" on earlier SB work. "I have a real problem with the way things are recorded nowadays," the guitarist complains. "You're on the clock, and it doesn't give you a lot of room to mess around with different tones, or try different mike placements, and try different instrumentation." Stale records are the result, Walker believes, with every song sounding the same. "With Jack, I was always able to say, 'let's try using that guitar amp with that guitar, and let's put it in a closet,' or 'let's put the mike at the bottom of the stairs. And turn the amp up real loud.'"
Even though he might fool around with the sound, respect for the music and the way it's performed is paramount for Walker. "We're kinda natural, we don't even use guitar tuners. We try to do everything the old-fashioned way."
The guitarist has been accused of being unprofessional because he's constantly tuning his guitar on stage. "People bitch about it. But if I was backing up Howlin' Wolf and his band and I brought a guitar tuner out, I'd probably get fired on the spot." Walker thinks players who use tuners are the ones who are unprofessional. "I just leave the guitar tuners to kids who are learning how to play. It would be nice if I could afford two guitars that were really nice and have 'em in different tunings, but right now I'm not at that point, I have only one nice guitar. But it's cool."
And if this music thing doesn't work out, Walker's got a backup plan. He recently completed medical school, and is a bona fide MD. "Right now, I'm currently like a doctor in limbo," Walker admits. "But I've been interviewing for residencies, and at the same time been shopping this record around, and I've got some offers, so hopefully I can continue to play music. Doctoring is always gonna be there," the blues MD acknowledges, "but the window of opportunity for music is always small."