Soledad Brothers
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Band History:
There might be a lot of bands playing the blues, but that aren’t too many living them as well. And there are even fewer who’ve been living them from the day they were born.
“I was born with the umbilical chord wrapped around my neck seven times. The day was Friday August 13, the day of long odds. It means the deck is stacked against you from the start, but you always find a way to win through in the end…”

This is the voice of Johnny Walker - doctor, anarchist and chief spokesman for Detroit’s most radical blues collective, The Soledad Brothers. Flying under the revolutionary Black Panther logo, they’ve already crammed more into an eventful four year history than most bands manage in a lifetime. The story starts, though, with Walker and the gutted suburbs of Toledo.

“South Toledo is a pretty desolate place. Every other house is burnt down. My Dad was a biker and I was raised in a trailer court. We listened to a lot of music. Ever since I can remember, my Dad listened to old blues, the Stones, John Lee Hooker, the MC5, a whole bunch of different things.”

Walker himself played in a series of punk bands, before hooking up with local blues group Henry and June in 1994. The band released one 7” on Human Fly (featuring ‘Lowdown Streamline’, which reappears on the new Soledad Brothers album, ‘and ‘Goin Back To Memphis’, which The White Stripes now include as part of their live set), but was chiefly notable for introducing Walker to drummer Ben Swank. When Henry and June split a year later, the two of them decided to form the Soledad Brothers.

The name tells you a lot about the band and their outlook. The term generally refers to an African-American doing time in California’s Soledad Prison. Specifically, though, it refers to three convicted felons – John Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson – who were incarcerated at Soledad when they were charged with killing a guard in retaliation for the murder of three black activists at the prison on January 13, 1970.

They hit the headlines when George Jackson’s 17 year old brother Jonathan burst into a Marion County courtroom with a machine gun, freed three San Quentin prisoners and took Judge Harold Haley hostage to demand freedom for the Soledad Brothers. Haley and Jackson were killed by police fire as they attempted to drive away from the courtroom. Having established their moniker, Swank and Walker began playing around the mid-West. They also made the acquaintance of two people who were to have a profound impact on their development. The first was Jack White.

“We met Jack when he came to one of our shows in Detroit,” explains Walker. “There was about five people there and he freaked out because I knew how to play slide guitar. After the gig, he helped me carry all my equipment downstairs and told me he had a four track in his living room and invited me to come by and do some recording. In return, I showed him how to play slide.”

The nascent Soledad Brothers began to record in Jack’s living room. Jack, in turn, put them in touch with Dave Buick who runs Italy records. In 1998, he agreed to put out the band’s first (Jack White produced) single ‘Sugar and Spice’. From there, a deal with the punk label Estrus followed, and in 2000 they released their debut self-titled album, a raw and vibrant blues record.

The record was also notable for its sleeve notes. Written by John Sinclair – the one time manager of the MC5 – the notes cemented the Soledads’ revolutionary aesthetic. The band had met him after being asked to open for him at a gig in Cincinnati, “He saw what we were doing,” says Walker, “and he saw that we were basically some rag-tag kids into playing some rock’n’roll. He knew we had the spirit.”

From here, with Walker finishing off his training at medical school (he started around the time the Soledad Brothers first got together), the band recruited a third member, Oliver Henry ( sax and guitar) and they quickly moved to write their second album – 2002’s ‘Steal Your Soul And Dare Your Spirit To Move’.

Recorded during a period of race rioting in Cincinnati, it saw a marked development towards a fuller, more intense sound. The darker feel of the album was also reflected in its artwork - a voodoo re-appropriation of the Virgin Mary.

“In Jamaica and Haiti, people were prosecuted for practicing voodoo,” says Walker, “so they adopted Catholic icons and just named them after their own spirits. The Virgin Mary, who’s on the cover, is Mama Ezili – the voodoo spirit for sensuality and fertility.”

Since the release of ‘Steal Your Soul’, things have been gathering pace for the Soledads. A relentless schedule of touring has been allied with the release of an electrifying live album and now the arrival of their third (and greatest) studio record, ‘Voice of Treason’ (Sanctuary). Recorded in Cincinnati and Toerag Studios, East London, it’s their strongest, most riotous record to date.

“There’s a lot of political overtone to the record and particularly the title,” concludes Walker. “It’s not overt, but the feeling’s there. There’s a bill that’s recently been passed in the United States called the Patriot Act. After 9/11, it was a knee-jerk reaction in Congress. It’s a bill that states if someone feels that something that’s being said or done is un-American then the person who’s being un-American is subject to being questioned. There are incidences of people being arrested for saying something in a diner. They’re taken into custody to see if they’re a threat to anyone. Sometimes I feel I have to curb my words in interviews. I have to be really careful what I say, because I don’t want to be hauled in for being un-American. I might be a card-carrying libertarian and the personification of anti-establishment, but when it comes down to it, I’m probably about as American as it’s possible to be.” Walker laughs. He’s just summed up the twisted spirit of The Soledad Brothers.

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