A Guitar Player's Guitar Player
June 2, 2017
Most music aficionados who do not play an instrument know Joe Walsh by his nickname, "the clown prince of rock."
They also know him for such funny, self-deprecating hits as "All Night Long" and "Life's Been Good."
What many of them probably do not know is that Walsh, performing at the Foellinger Theater on August 2, is widely acknowledged as one of the best guitar players in rock music.
Joey Ortega (aka Joey O), a northeast Indiana resident who is widely acknowledged as one of the best guitarists in the Midwest, has been well aware of this for a while.
He remembers watching a DVD of Eric Clapton's 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival, which featured performances by Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, Jonny Lang, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Steve Vai and Walsh, among many illustrious others.
"It had all of Clapton's buddies in it," Ortega said. "And Joe Walsh for me was the highlight, and that's saying a lot. When I watched that, my mouth was hanging open: 'Holy (expletive)! Did Joe Walsh just steal the show? Was Joe Walsh the best guitarist there?' He just killed it."
The average person little suspects that Walsh enjoys such a distinction, Ortega said. But another guitar player will "be the first one to tell you that [Walsh] is one of a small handful of guys who can really play," he said.
Chilly Addams, a longtime local media personality and a bassist in the band Phil's Family Lizard, said Walsh isn't the sort of player who tries to dazzle you with how many notes he can pack into a solo.
"He's not into making it so technically difficult and awesome that people go, 'That was really technically difficult and awesome,'" he said. "It's more like, 'That was really fun! That sounded great, man!'"
"Not a lot of guys express themselves at his level," Ortega said. "Any kid in any little town can play fast, but at the end of the day, that means about as much as talking fast."
Walsh came up at a time, Ortega said, when the better you could play, the cooler you were.
"If you couldn't play, you were David Cassidy," he said. "Nowadays, everybody wants to be David Cassidy."
Venerable local DJ Doc West may not be a guitarist, but he has been a sagacious and passionate music devotee longer than Walsh has been a professional musician.
West recalled seeing Walsh perform with the Cleveland-based James Gang in 1969 at a now defunct Columbus venue called the World Theater.
Clapton's band Cream was popular at the time, and the James Gang had whittled itself down to a power trio in a similar vein.
"He was just phenomenal on guitar," West said of Walsh. "I remember thinking that it was like Ohio had its own Cream."
A year later, West saw the band open for The Who. That was the tour where Pete Townshend first developed his lifelong and oft-expressed love of Walsh's playing.
"Pete Townshend said, 'Hey, we love a band from your parts here called the James Gang," West recalled. "Everyone went nuts. He said, 'You know, they just released an album called Yer' Album and we love it. So tonight, we want to be known as Yer' Who.'"
Ortega believes that even if Walsh had hung up his guitar after leaving the James Gang, his place in the pantheon of great rock axe men would have been assured.
But he didn't hang up his guitar after leaving the James Gang. He went on to a successful solo career and two stints with the Eagles, the second of which led to Walsh's sobriety.
Before that second stint, Walsh was known for partying hard.
In the late 1980s, Ortega recorded at Sound City in Van Nuys, California. He said he was puzzled by a camper that seemed permanently anchored in the parking lot.
"There were always a lot of nice vehicles, of course," he said. "Maybe I was the only one who didn't have a nice vehicle. And I kept seeing this big-ass camper. I thought, 'Who the hell has this big-ass camper out here?'
"It had this orange extension chord running out of it to the studio," Ortega said. "Turned out it was Joe Walsh. This was back in Joe's party days. They didn't want him driving home and getting arrested, so he just slept out there."
Ortega said Glenn Frey added Walsh to the Eagles because he had a vision for the band and he knew Walsh could fulfill that vision.
"They were successful before Joe Walsh," he said. "They were a country band. But Glenn Frey wanted to be more of a rock band, and he wanted to be as successful as a rock band."
Walsh's eventual sobriety was greatly helped along in 1993 by fellow Eagles Frey and Don Henley, according to an article in the Washington Post.
West said Walsh's sobriety was made a condition of payment.
"My message is there is life after addiction, and it's really good," Walsh told the Post in 2015 after he'd been sober for 11 years. "If I had known, I'd have stopped earlier."
In Walsh's case, sobriety has one discernable downside, according to Addams.
"The only thing that bums me out about that is that he started wearing blazers," he said. "He wears blazers all the time now. The Eagles turned him into blazer wearer!"
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