Guitarist Joe Louis Walker first encountered the blues in the coffeehouses of San Francisco, where in the 60s he heard such legends as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. To these primal influences Walker added bits of other styles–rock, funk, and fusion–then swirling in the Frisco air; he spent a few years on the bar circuit, but he tired of the blues life in the early 70s and gravitated to the more sedate world of gospel. In 1986 Walker’s Cold Is the Night (Hightone) signaled his return to the blues, and his authoritative guitar style, sinewy vocals, and versatility have since drawn international acclaim from traditionalists and modernists alike. Walker is as comfortable with a hard-funk cadence as he is with a straightforward 12-bar shuffle, and when he cools his jets–as on the breezy pop-soul ballad “Yveline” or the gently loping blues “Repay My Love,” both on his current disc, Preacher and the President (Verve)–he approaches the suave urbanity of Al Green or Lionel Richie. With his cool, taut riffs, Walker coaxes the essence from the music, rather than imposing his will on it. His string bending caresses a melody with sensuous grace, teasing the line into explosions of harsh chords or staccato barrages. He builds solos from the contours and textures his sidemen lay down around him, crafting each phrase as if he were composing a horn chart instead of improvising on guitar. Some naysayers see his panache as arrogance, but I think it’s refreshing to hear a young guitarist approach the blues with restraint and class instead of turning it into a boogie-till-you-puke bacchanal. Friday, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333. DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Jackson.