TVD Recommends: Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s Birthday Bash at the Maple Leaf Bar, 12/19

Saturday night, the Maple Leaf Bar will be filled with musical stars and fans as the legendary guitarist and vocalist Walter “Wolfman” Washington turns 72. Expect numerous special guests including bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli, saxophonist Roger Lewis (Dirty Dozen Brass Band), and keyboardist and Washington’s longtime musical partner Joe Krown, in addition to his ace band, the Roadmasters.

Music writers including myself bandy around the term “legendary” far too often. But in the case of Walter “Wolfman” Washington, nothing could be further from the truth. Washington’s career began when he was a youngster backing some of the biggest names to emerge from New Orleans during the 1950s R&B heyday. Particularly significant is his long tenure leading the band of the great vocalist Johnny Adams.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Adams played at numerous back ‘o’ town clubs including Dorothy’s Medallion, a storied venue where sets didn’t start until after midnight and lasted until after dawn.

Adams encouraged Washington to pursue his own musical vision and he gradually developed into an iconic front man, modeling his vocal style on the oft imitated, never duplicated work of his mentor. He played many nights with his first band, Solar System, at the Rose Tattoo, located directly across the street from the 501 Club, which morphed into the first incarnation of Tipitina’s. Decades later, Washington is the last living link to a period when the lines between R&B, jazz, and the blues were blurred and genre pigeonholing was for the squares (do people even use that term anymore?).

Since he plays all over town and rarely tours, Washington is often taken for granted in his hometown. Yet, his performances are always uncommon displays of musical virtuosity and understated vocal prowess (you have to really listen to him sing). On stage, he is a humble musician who never takes his gifts for granted.

Consider for example a recent set at a school benefit in an uptown park. The event was barely publicized. I only found out about it because the park is in my neighborhood and I happened to pass by and saw a stage set up that morning.

Later in the day, we walked over. The crowd actually listening to the music was slim to say the least. More people were interested in the chicken drop. He could have literally phoned it in and few would have even noticed. But “Wolfman” put on one of the most stellar sets I have ever witnessed and I have seen him hundreds of times over the years.

By the end, a smattering of new and old fans—old people and kids, black and white—were dancing to another classic idiosyncratic version of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “You Can Stay But That Noise Got To Go.” With a sly smile on his face and big grins on the faces of his longtime band, he thanked the crowd, packed up his guitar, and slipped away, heading perhaps to the next gig.

Showtime Saturday night at the Maple Leaf Bar is 10:30 PM. Walter “Wolfman” Washington is also playing the Ogden After Hours series at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art this evening (11/17) at 6 PM.

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