The Upshot: Few blues guitarists have distinguished their careers by sitting still, creatively. This restless spirit first launched her trajectory by breaking all the boundaries of sexism in what had been – traditionally – a man’s world. First mastering her instrument, she further developed her vocal powers to further go where the boys couldn’t go.
BY ERIC THOM
It depends where you hail from of course, but to fans of Chicago blues, Joanna Connor has long been a touchstone for searing, hard-edged electric blues. Granted, she’s been MIA for a few years but, through an odd quirk of fate (and the internet), she’s back to claim her rightful piece of the pie. When a fan’s live recording at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in 2014 went viral on YouTube, she was suddenly ‘discovered’ by the masses – yet Connor is perhaps the antithesis of being an Overnight Success. The ever-fiery, singer-songwriter/guitarist first made her mark with her debut release in ’89 – a true labour of love. Five years prior, the Brooklyn-born blues spark had made the pilgrimage from Worcester, Mass. to Chicago, determined to sit in with her heroes and cultivate her own distinctive definition of the blues. Regardless of how this Second Coming happened, her latest release will come as no surprise to existing fans of her other nine releases. Yet, Six String Stories has, by itself, all the feral power required to enlist and baptize fresh legions into the electric-blues fold. Launching with the molten ”It’s A Woman’s Way”, Connor and her band rip a page out of Helen Reddy’s feminist songbook with impassioned vocals and her ever-blazing Les Paul. Sounding slightly spontaneous as if recorded live, you’ll find a few off-key vocals, yet there’s no denying the fleet-fingered ferocity of her attack.
Tenacious slide work continues with “By Your Side” – a comparatively half-speed grind allowing her band – Marion Lance Lewis (drums, bass, synthesizer, vocals and romance), Jeff Lewis (keyboards), Omar Coleman (harp) and the horns of Charlie Kimble, Gary Solomon and Charles Pryor – to catch their wind as Connor explodes all over her fretboard. In an ode to old-school marriage, “We Stayed Together” is somewhat autobiographical and one of the disc’s best songs – a slowed-down ‘duet’ with partner Marion Lance Lewis, accompanied by minimal B3, bass and drums. A slight about-face with Jill Scott’s “Golden” demonstrates Connor’s creative range, transforming the handclapped silvery funk of the original into slick, uptempo jazz as she George Benson’s her way into a soulful place. Despite a minor rap outtake, it’s Jeff Lewis piano work and the soothing backup vocals of Steve & Hope Lewis that lend a little sunshine, offsetting the heavier side of Connor’s personality. Left turn again, with Coleman’s harp, Lewis’ tasteful percussion as Connor works her fretboard in a more adventurous direction to give the delightfully instrumental “Swamp Swim” its winding river feel. “Love Coming On Strong” is another powerful composition as all elements of the band come together to build another highlight track – acoustic guitar, Lewis’ plucky bass, background vocal and synth sting set the stage for Connor’s strongest vocal and the lethal tone she squeezes from her fingers. African percussion sets up the upbeat revival feel of “Heaven”, introducing the Lewis Family Singers and full horn section, as Connor dances through the piece, keeping her acoustic guitar largely at bay while featuring Charles Pryor’s trumpet as Marion Lewis plays it like a testifying preacher.
Of course, the much-ballyhooed subject of the link-gone-viral, “Halsted Street”, allows Connor the podium and the chance to refine it with a slightly Spanish edge. Of course, Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” is where Connor first cut her teeth, this live performance paying homage to the much-covered song – but slowed down to a crawl, delivering some of Connor’s best singing and – without the need for speed – most expressive guitar-playing. On the back of Marlin Lewis’ heavy bass-lines, Connor approaches ‘Young Woman’s Blues” with the bite of a jazz player, using a slightly more melodic, effects-laden approach and a slight bend to her vocals, accompanied by an unnamed rhythm guitarist. Not unlike something you’d expect from Larry Carlton or Lee Ritenour, Connor underlines her absolute versatility across much of Six String Stories reminding us, at the ripe age of 55, she’s got plenty of stories yet to come.
Check out Connor on the web as well:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWter1w4vWE (“going viral” 2014)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkHzX_Bl23A&list=PLihhLeRu4qBAipANnUmeruKvZFioXlq4l&index=1 (“By Your Side”, live)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_pHmxVuxxg&index=2&list=PLihhLeRu4qBAipANnUmeruKvZFioXlq4l (“Love Coming On Strong”, live)