For the past 10 years, Soledad Brothers have been identified as a Detroit band, which is neither unfair nor misleading. Early on in his career, guitarist Johnny Walker migrated from his Toledo hometown up to Detroit just because it was naturally a place of infinitely greater opportunity.
"We met a lot of people in Detroit and we all got along really well and we were all like-minded," says Walker, newly relocated to Covington for the second time in recent years. "I played bass with the (Detroit) Cobras for awhile and I recorded on the first White Stripes record and sat in with lots of other people. We all kind of came up together. It's an honest association. It's a small collective group of people who played music and were into the same thing before all the hype. We all have the same roots."
That assessment was borne out when Walker made the acquaintance of a certain Jack White and began playing within his circle of friends and hangouts. The association became indelible when Walker started The Soledad Brothers in 1996 as a duo with drummer Ben Swank and roared out of the Detroit scene with the same swaggering Hard Rock/Soul posture as native sons Iggy Pop and the MC5 with more than a touch of early Rolling Stones, when they were still freshly galvanized by first generation Blues.
But a funny thing happened on the way to The Soledad Brothers' latest album, the recently released The Hardest Walk; Walker moved to Covington to attend medical school at UC, and while pursuing his M.D. (which he earned in 2002), he toured throughout the Midwest with the Soledads.
"When I was in med school, I was still driving to Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland to do shows on weekends," says Walker. "It was a lot of work."
He and Swank recorded a pair of albums for Estrus Records, their 2000 eponymous debut and 2002's Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move, while Walker was still a med student; the latter album expanded the Soledads from duo to trio with the presence of a new member, multi-instrumentalist Oliver Henry.
Few people knew that Henry was, in fact, Brian Olive, who had left his gig with The Greenhornes in 2002 to play with Walker fulltime in the Soledads. For the brief time that he claimed membership in both bands, he changed his name to Oliver Henry for the Soledads, and that turned out to be the lasting gig, hence his new identity.
"I was hanging around with Johnny while he was going to school," says Olive. "He'd come and play some harmonica with the Greenhornes every once in awhile and I'd go sit in with the Soledad Brothers on sax. At the time when I was not quite getting along with some of the guys in The Greenhornes, it was cool because I had a place to go right away."
It seems almost comical that, in addition to his med school requirements and his sporadic but consistent work with the Soledads, Walker was even a recording/performing member of Cincy's Pearlene. When does the man sleep?
"I don't like downtime," he says, with an audible grin. "I get in trouble; you know, that thing about idle hands do the devil's work and all that. So I try to stay busy."
After med school, Walker moved to Cleveland for a couple of years but he found himself drawn back to Covington. He now uses the area as a base for his Midwestern touring with the Soledads, just as he did during his med school experience; while we talked he was gathering equipment for a show that night in Columbus.
The Soledads' new album, The Hardest Walk, comes two years after the much acclaimed Voice of Treason, a record that displayed not only Walker's garagey love of the Blues but also his militantly-held political beliefs. Walker's taken critical heat on both fronts, particularly from detractors who see him as a white-boy Blues rocker co-opting the form.
"The only time I really care what anybody thinks is if I know the people and know and respect their tastes," says Walker. "And those people would never tell me to my face if they didn't like my record. I don't care what critics think. It's nice to get a good critique, but I don't know the people doing the writing, so I don't know if they're putting an Enya record on right after they put ours on."
The Hardest Walk is a much more experimental work, largely in the vein of the MC5's jazzy Hard Rock second album, Back in the USA. Walker, Olive and French multi-instrumentalist Dechman (who is now touring with the Soledads in a quartet format) played every instrument on the album, including theremin, saxophone, lap steel, cello and sitar (they did hire out a trumpet part for one track). Cleveland Scene hailed The Hardest Walk as the Soledads' Exile on Main Street. Walker likes that comparison.
"Maybe Exile on Main Street was The Rolling Stones' Hardest Walk," he says with a laugh. "But it's fair. It was recorded pretty much the same way. The Rolling Stones locked themselves up in the studio and didn't come out for a month or two, and that's how we recorded the record. I guess that's a fair analogy. (Exile is) one of my favorite records and I think it's one of the best recorded records ever."
Walker has heard the Stones comparisons for years and like all critical comments about the band, positive and negative, he takes them at face value. He understands the comparison and even offers some reflective wisdom about Mick and the boys.
"We all listen to the same music; we all came from the same place, standing on the shoulders of the same giants," says Walker. "I'd be willing to bet that The Rolling Stones are more envious of our lifestyle, living here in Kentucky, playing loads of different Americana music. That's what they were going for. We're closer to the source than they are, really. I think they would love to come down and stay in Covington with us and stay up until 5 in the morning, playing guitar and singing Townes Van Zandt songs and Leadbelly songs. It'd be right up their alley. It's no mistake that we have the same kind of thing going on."
SOLEDAD BROTHERS perform Saturday at the Southgate House with Heartless Bastards and The High & Low.