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Published: Wednesday, 10/20/2004

Busman's holiday: Toledo's Soledad Brothers brings blues tour to hometown

The Soledad Brothers comprises, from left, Ben Swank, Johnny Walker, and Oliver Henry. The Soledad Brothers comprises, from left, Ben Swank, Johnny Walker, and Oliver Henry.
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European blues fans have been grooving to the Soledad Brothers' third CD, "Voice of Treason," for about a year already, but the disc is just being released stateside on the Sanctuary label.

Now the Toledo trio is introducing its raw, ramped-up sound to American audiences with a nationwide tour that includes shows in Maumee tomorrow and Bowling Green on Oct. 28.

Singer-guitarist-harmonica player Johnny Walker could hardly wait to get back to his hometown with drummer Ben Swank and saxophonist-keyboardist Oliver Henry.

"Are you kidding me? We're going to practice in my mom's basement, then do the show in Maumee," Walker said with a laugh.

The hometown gig just might include a few obscure songs from the musicians' former Toledo bands, including Weird Harold and Henry and June, Walker said, chuckling. Then again, maybe not. The Soledad Brothers are so close to a big-time breakthrough they know they should focus on their new material, which has earned raves from the European press and some of their high-profile pals including Jack White of the White Stripes and former MC5 manager and anti-establishment icon John Sinclair.

"The Soledad Brothers are no cornball blues revival act," Sinclair said, "but make a fresh, idiosyncratic, soulful extension of the blues into their own life experience and out into the world at large."

Walker recently played 15 shows with the MC5 on a European reunion tour by the legendary Detroit rock band.

"I've been listening to them since I was 3 years old," Walker said. "I sang and played harmonica with them. It was great fun to get to play with your idols."

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, White said the Soledad Brothers is one of the group's he's been digging and its music is "really interesting." He discovered the Toledo blues group in 1998 when the Soledad Brothers - then a duo of Walker and Swank - played a small club in Detroit.

White was impressed with Walker's slide guitar talent and asked for lessons while he helped the duo take their equipment down and haul it downstairs. White ended up producing the Soledad Brothers' first single, "Sugar and Spice," which was released in 1998 on the Italy label.

Since then, the group has continued to explore a raucous and balanced blend of influences that infuse the basic blues with punk, jazz, Texas boogie, R&B, pop, and soul.

"We don't want any one song or style of music to dominate," Walker said. "There are so many great things about different types of music. You could say, 'Oh, you're a garage band.' But then we spin off on some jazz tangent and it's not 'garage rock' anymore. Or we'll employ a horn section, which garage rock bands don't do."

"Voice of Treason" features more stylistic mayhem, from the churning, guitar-powered opener "Cage That Tiger" to the gospel blues take on the Rev. Gary Davis' "Lay Down This World" to the Texas boogie of "The Elucidator."

The rough-and-tumble sound captures the group's commitment to delivering its energetic, unfiltered music directly to listeners' ears.

"When the label called and asked how long it would take to get the disc to them, I told them one week," Walker said. "They said, 'That's for the demo, right?' And I said, 'No, for the whole album. We're not a 'boy band.' They were shocked."

Swank is a 1992 graduate of Maumee High School, and Walker, who grew up in South Toledo, is a St. Francis de Sales High School grad.

The group, which later added Henry on sax and keyboards, focused on recordings and the occasional concert while Walker earned a degree from the University of Cincinnati Medical School with a specialty in psychology. He's putting his medical career on hold while his music group has a chance at the brass ring.

"Voice of Treason," released in Europe on the Polydor label, includes 11 Soledad Brothers originals plus covers of "Lay Down This World" and Skip James' "I'm So Glad."

The Soledad Brothers will be in concert tomorrow at the Village Idiot, 309 Conant St., Maumee, with John Barille and Dooley Wilson opening at 7 p.m. Cover charge is $10. Information: 419-893-7281.

Contact David Yonke at dyonke@theblade.com or


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