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The Charles Walker Band: Everyone is Family

Charles Walker’s transformation from blues to funk began when the love of his life joined the band.  Now, everyone is family, and there’s plenty of love and fun to go around.

by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Aaron Walker
and the Charles Walker Band

It would be nice to think that Charles Walker’s epiphany happened in real life as they do in the movies—like that scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty stares at the desert and envisions Las Vegas.  It’d certainly be cool to think that something flipped inside Walker’s head when he sat down to listen to Portia Carmon’s audition for his band’s then-open lead vocals spot.  You can imagine Walker sitting before her, his eyes flashing that clue that he sees something no one else does.  And in the background, while his eureka moment unfurls itself still further, you can hear the movie soundtrack reaching its crescendo.

Real epiphanies, however, rarely explode like that.  If they do, they’re almost never visual.  Real epiphanies percolate.  They often begin as an “Oh…I don’t know…”  Eventually they become a handful of “Well…maybe…” before gradually turning into a moment punctuated by long sigh and an “Okay…let’s give it a try.”

Much has changed since that fateful audition.  For one thing, Walker and Carmon are now a couple, partners in life as well as in their art.  For another thing, that blues band is now an energetic group putting on performances they describe as “Neo Funk.”  Theirs is an electric, enthusiastic gig celebrating the idea that we are all family.  Watch Walker work his saxophone on a track like “Soul Deep,” and you might see that hint of the blues…of jazz…maybe even the classical style.  You might think he’s dabbled in the blues, but you wouldn’t necessarily latch on to the fact that the Charles Walker Band once called itself The Charles Walker Blues Band.

“[The blues] was [ingrained] pretty deeply,” Walker says of his past musical life. “I spent some time down in Arkansas playing with one of R. L. Burnside’s sons. And I spent some time studying and playing in New Orleans.  Then I played with a lot of jazz musicians. I actually started playing in bands because of a Chicago guy named Luther Ellison, who was a powerful guitar player.  All of his music was in your face. It resonated with me. The blues still lives a lot in me. Even though I’m not writing blues music anymore, I don’t think it completely escapes me when I write.”

Listen to those early records from the band’s blues phase, such as 2006’s Hotel Room Blues, and you could argue that Walker’s musical trajectory also works in reverse.  Both the album’s lead and title tracks carry all the earmarks of traditional blues, but songs such as “Like What I Like” suggest Walker’s unconscious openness to changing the band’s dynamic.  It’s one thing, however, to play with tone and melodies on a quintessentially “blues” record. It’s quite another decision to become the thing you’ve dabbled with.

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Charles Walker:  “[Things started to change] about eight years ago.  When Portia joined, we really started to do more funk and soul. It was a challenge to me because I [had] listened to a lot of funk and soul, but I hadn’t really played it. So I had to quickly catch up and figure out a lot about writing it and how to play it. Like everything else in my life, it’s been an adventure.”

Donovan Wheeler:  How did the arrival of Portia come about?

Walker:  “The band has always had a female singer. When the singer before her moved to Asheville, our guitarist, who had played with Portia at an open jam, reached out to her, and she didn’t have anything going on at the time. She auditioned and got the job.”

Wheeler:  So how would you describe what you’re writing now? Would you call it funk?

Walker:  “We call it Neo Funk. It definitely still has a lot of the funk rhythms, but it’s very influenced by modern music, modern pop…things like that.”

Wheeler:  As talented as you guys are, you could be playing almost anywhere.  What made you decide that you wanted to stay in Milwaukee?

Walker:  “That’s a real simple question answer: I have a daughter who is about to be 17. I wasn’t going anywhere until after she graduated from high school.   I can definitely say that I’ve played with a lot of great musicians in Milwaukee. I have learned a lot [here].  I give a lot credit to Milwaukee in terms of making me who I am as a musician.”

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Walker wanted to launch his career in Chicago, but he settled on Milwaukee to appease his then wife.  Given that backstory you can understand how the 41-year-old musician—who grew up in the sticks between two tiny towns north of Madison—carries on a complicated relationship with his adopted home town.  Additionally, anyone who has lived for any amount of time within a day’s drive of the Great Lakes, can nod in agreement when Walker dreams of relocating somewhere with “more sunshine and less snow.”

Wheeler:  What does funk offer you musically that blues did not?

Walker:  “One of the things I enjoy about funk music, at its root, is that it’s very high-energy and positive.  That’s really important to me, [not only in terms of my development] as a musician but as a person.  It’s important to me to send out positive energy because we’re inundated with all of these bad things have happened around the world.  People need a break from that.”

Walker:  “We all need to know that most of us are generally pretty good.  It’s okay to enjoy yourself for a while and let loose.  That’s part of why we talk so much about family on stage.  We want to remind everyone that we are one family.  When we get caught up in the way people look…in what they believe…on what side of the political spectrum do they fall…?  We forget that, at the end of the day, they go home and love their families.  They just want to be happy like everybody else.  Funk music helps unite people. So, for at least for an hour-and-a-half, everyone can be connected and remember at the end of the day that we’re all human.”

Wheeler:  Is it easier or more difficult to write songs when they come from happy places?

Walker:  “Some of these songs, even ones with a happy message to them, are not all sunshine and unicorns.  ‘One in a Million,’ for example, is about a kid who grows up in the ghetto.  But because he has a strong vision for himself, he gets out—becomes that one in a million—and makes something of himself through music.  We write from human experience, and that isn’t always happy, but our goal is to uplift people…not to make them think, ‘Let me go and drink myself into a stupor.’”

Wheeler:  What are some of your personal favorites from your own collection?

Walker:  “I particularly like a song on our new record called ‘Valentine.’  It was an exploration.  I can’t honestly pinpoint the moment when I said, ‘You know what? Let me imagine what it would be like to be in a lesbian relationship and try to figure out whether it’s working or not…whether you’re cheating on me or not.  I want to be with you, but I’m not sure I can trust you.’  It was also the first time we incorporated some hip-hop.  We had a female rapper come and do a verse on that track.  Most importantly, it’s a song that brought me to a place where I had never been before.”

Wheeler:  Do you find yourself in new territory often, or does your songwriting often take you back to worlds you know?

Walker:  “As songwriters we’re always trying to push that envelope…see what we can incorporate and change…so that we’re not doing the same thing over and over again.”

Walker:  “But we also perform a song called ‘Is You’ which is about my relationship with my ex-wife and my current relationship with Portia.  That’s a different experience from other songs because it’s very personal…the complete opposite of ‘Valentine.’”

Wheeler:  That’s interesting because so often those personal songs still resonate with listeners who don’t know the story behind them.

Walker:  “One of the things I’ve come to realize is that even though the names are different (and the experiences are slightly different), as human beings, we share a lot of similar experiences.  We all grow up and face the same questions:  Am I good enough?  Does she like me?  Does she hate me?  Am I going to be able to pass this test?  Many of us go through breakups and divorces as well.  All of that is what makes us a family.  It’s why we all connect.  So even when the story isn’t about you…it is about you.  It makes you feel like someone out there gets you and understands you.”

Wheeler:  Since you started your career you’ve lived through a lot of those shared experiences yourself.  What do you say to young people who want to follow your lead and pursue a career music?

Walker:  “If a younger musician wants to talk to me, one of the things I always say to them is: ‘You need to sit down and prioritize what you want.  There’s not a right or wrong answer to those priorities, but before you really pursue this thing, you need to make sure that you want to do it for real.’”

Walker:  “Because if your number one priority is family, then your life is going to look very different.  You’re probably not going to be much of a touring musician.  You might be a studio musician…you might be a songwriter…you can do those things from home and raise a family.  But if you’re going to be a touring artist and raise a family…it’s possible, but it’s going to be hard to do, especially if you’re on the road 100-200 days a year.”

Wheeler:  That’s the thing, isn’t it…?  Getting people to understand what you do from your perspective?

Walker:  “[And that’s not only true among musicians].  If your [life] partner is not a musician—or not someone who has to travel for work—it’s pretty difficult to get them to understand why you have to be gone so much.  [It’s hard to make them see] that it doesn’t have anything to do with them.  It’s just part of what you do.  It’s part of what’s inside you that you have to express.”

Wheeler:  What you would say to that younger version of yourself?

Walker:  “I would say, ‘Charles you have the potential to do whatever it is you want to do.  Stop being afraid of doing it, and just start doing it.  Do it today.  Know that you’re going to fail a lot, but that’s only way you’re going to get to what it is that you really want.”

Wheeler:  Is what you want now, what you wanted then?

Walker:  “It’s clearer.  It’s still pretty much the same thing, but when I was younger I hadn’t clearly articulated to myself what I wanted.  Now I know.  That includes being able to take time away from music to be with family and not feel guilty about setting the music aside.”

The future Walker wants: the one where he grows his brand and his fan base, the one where he shares his music with larger audiences…it’s a normal dream in any professional field.  The degree to which the Charles Walker Band becomes a household name, however, matters less than the degree to which he has already succeeded thus far.

The Charles Walker Band will take the Blues at the Crossroads’ main stage at 6:45 Saturday September 15.

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About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

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