Trout doesn't seem frustrated, though. As his brand of blues, rock, R&B, and soul starts to catch on in America, "it kind of reminds me of being in Europe 11 years ago," he told the River Cities' Reader - people are just discovering him, and he has to work hard to win his kudos. "Climbing the ladder has always been part of the fun for me. ... [In Europe], they're applauding because I'm still alive. Over here it's still a challenge."
Go the Distance is generally terrific, full of urgency and immediacy, and you can expect those qualities to get amped up even more when Trout and company visit the Quad Cities on Sunday for a show at Stars & Stripes, one of three big blues events this weekend in the area. In addition to Trout's show, the Mississippi Valley Blues Society will host Katherine Davis for a handful of live appearances, and Keb' Mo' will visit Cedar Rapids for a show at the Paramount Theatre. (Trout was last here for the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in 1999, and Mo' was a BluesFest guest in 1996. Davis was here just last month, playing the River Rockin' Ribfest with her band Mississippi Heat.)
Trout's music oozes emotion, and it's a two-pronged attack. Trout's guitar and voice are equally potent weapons, and you can feel what's being said if even the words were in a different language. It's an added bonus that Trout's lyrics are frequently as adept as his fingers and his throat.
Trout clearly has the chops of a guitar hero, but they become much more because of his songwriting and intensity. The guitar isn't merely technically impressive; it is used to capture and express emotion.
The lyrics do some heavy lifting as well. "Message on the Doorway" is an evocative story on a man snubbed, invoking the private language of lovers: "She left a message on the doorway / For everyone to see / The building was condemned / And the words were just for me / No one could understand it / They just thought she'd lost her mind / But to me the words were screaming / Brutal and unkind."
Trout said that Go the Distance is a record about turning 50, and he said he stripped away some of the flourishes of his songwriting. The entire record was written in three weeks. "I tried to write a little more simply, and I think it worked well doing that," he said. The decision came at the suggestion of his wife, and the result is an album that's truer to the band's live sound than previous records. "It's probably my best effort," Trout said.
"Love So Deep," which kicks off Go the Distance, is full of fiery licks, and it's followed by equally strong playing on "Outta Control," on which Trout also wails like Little Richard. Trout's guitar on the title track sounds alternately as if it's crying in pain and weeping, giving a lament-filled edge to a song whose lyrics suggest only determination. The guitar on "Gotta Leave This Town" is similarly mournful and angry.
"Faithful" is a midpoint breather, and Trout gives his guitar a chance to cool down with a simple, subdued solo, but the song is no throw-away: Trout's ballad vocals are rich and emotive.
Those traits are also on display in the elegiac acoustic track "Bugle Billy," about a fallen veteran, although the lyrics themselves are too treacly to redeem. Also on the debit side is "I Don't Want My MTV," a rollicking but obvious screed against an obvious target. When was the last time the channel played a video, anyway?
Those weak tracks suggest that Trout is strongest when he's personal; when he steps outside of himself, the lyrics have little to offer, and the music feels off as a result. If vocals and lyrics are secondary to most blues guitarists, they aren't for Trout.
Two-time Grammy-winner Keb' Mo' doesn't come from the fiery tradition as Trout; his creamy arrangements and smooth vocals belong to a much older and relaxed version of the blues. His largely acoustic blues recall the early blues greats mixed with soulful R&B.
Mo' - born Kevin Moore - racked up awards and acclaim with his self-titled debut (1995), Just Like You (1996), and Slow Down (1998). This past summer, he released the "children's album" Big Wide Grin, a record that disappointed some fans with its incessant cheer but seems more a detour than a change of direction.
Also in the vocal-blues vein is Chicagoan Katherine Davis, who will be finishing off a weeklong Blues in the Schools residency with three public performances with Quad Citian and pianist Eddie Hodge. The major performance will be an event on Friday at the Davenport Museum of Art at 7 p.m.
Davis is the first singer to conduct workshops as part of a Mississippi Valley Blues Society residency, and Davis' soft-spoken acoustic sound is noteworthy for its fusion of blues and jazz. (Davis showcases her blues singing in the band Mississippi Heat and on solo dates, but she's also does solo jazz gigs.) The multitalented Davis is also an actress and educator.
Walter Trout & The Radicals will headline a show on Sunday, September 30, at Stars & Stripes on Kimberly Road in Davenport. Shane Johnson's Blue Train will open, and the concert starts at 7:30 p.m.
Keb' Mo' will perform at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 28.
Katherine Davis will perform three shows that are free and open to the public: at 4 p.m. Thursday, September 27, at United Neighbors in Davenport; at 7 p.m. Friday, September 28, at the Davenport Museum of Art; and at 1 p.m. Saturday, September 29, in the SouthPark Mall food court.