It’s time for everyone to sit up and take notice of Joanna Connor. And with her new album, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, produced by none other than Joe Bonamassa, it feels like an already successful career is opening up in new ways.
Those in the know have seen the YouTube videos that have gone viral, with her incredible slide guitar playing – check out Walkin’ Blues, 8m views and counting – and have listened with pleasure to some of the thirteen albums she’s released over the past 30 years. But 4801 South Indiana Avenue ought to bring her much wider attention.
Joanna Connor has been paying her dues for many years, plying her trade in the blues clubs of her adopted home town, Chicago. She moved there in 1984, and has played with, and learned from, the likes of James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, she began playing at the premiere blues club, Kingston Mines, where she has continued to perform three nights a week until the advent of the pandemic. She’s been a regular at major blues and music festivals worldwide, and those who know her music will hail her as one of the world’s best blues rock guitarists, with her innovative, jazzy, funky approach.
Of her early days in Chicago, she has said, “It was my university. I went out every night of the week. Within a month I had my first gig with the legendary Johnny Littlejohn. A few weeks later I became a part of Dion Payton and the 43rd St Bluesband. We were the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge, on the south side of Chicago, then owned by Buddy Guy. That’s when my schooling kicked into overdrive. I played with Buddy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Sammy Lawhorn, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Magic Slim, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, just to name a few. I was blessed.”
Her new album on Joe Bonamassa’s new independent blues record label Keeping The Blues Alive, follows 2019’s excellent Rise, and was produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith at Ocean Way Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s an absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band, consisting of Josh Smith (guitar), Reese Wynans (keyboards), Cavin Turner (bass), and drummer Lemar Carter (drums).
It’s superbly produced, but at the same time, it’s packed with raw, high-energy musicianship.
Down at the Crossroads got chatting to Ms. Connor about the album. I congratulated her on such a fine piece of work, and asked, first of all about the record’s title.
She told me she had been very pleased about the way it had turned out: “I mean, the whole time we were doing it, it felt special and it felt wonderful. So, in the whole process, I thought, Oh, this is going to be good! And now I’m very pleased that people love it.
“As for the title, 4801 South Indiana Avenue was the address of Teresa’s lounge, which went away in about 1986. I did actually play there a few times, but, you know, Teresa’s had Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and it’s really a historic place.”
Theresa’s Lounge was one of the best of the bars that had opened on Chicago’s South Side to showcase the emerging sound of Chicago blues after the Second World War. African Americans from rural Mississippi had begun to migrate north, in the hope of a better life, and the musicians amongst them adapted the Delta blues they had played to a new form of blues reflecting their new urban environment.
Owner Theresa Needham regularly booked people like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, and quickly established the venue as one of the best places to see and hear the blues played. Over time its faithful local clientele was joined by people from all over the world attracted by the calibre of music being played.
Choosing to reference this iconic Chicago venue in the album’s title nails its colours firmly to the mast. Connor said it was the most bluesy record she’s ever recorded. I asked about the songs chosen – they are mostly covers of obscure blue songs.
“Well, Josh Smith, Joe Bonamassa and I sat there, and just went through maybe fifteen or sixteen songs and then kind of narrowed it down to the ones we chose. We all know a lot about the blues in terms of the history and the artists, but Joe is like a walking encyclopedia! So he really knows how to dig into some of the deeper catalogues.”
You do get the impression with Bonamassa, a self-confessed guitar and technology nerd, that he’s likely to dive deep into the history and background of any music he’s involved in. Just watch his recent movie, Guitar Man, where, at one point he claims not to really be a blues musician, but then later on he’s travelling around Mississippi looking for the roots of the blues. You can well imagine the man getting deep into the detail.
I wondered if there was any song that Joanna particularly likes on the album?
“It’s hard to choose because they all bring something different to the table. Some have got that Hound Dog Taylor boogie-type thing, some have great energy and some have got that slinky horn thing. But I do like the single a lot, I Feel So Good, I just feel like it’s got a lot of fire to it and I’m pleased with my playing on that too.”
I Feel So Good features some incendiary slide playing by Connor, taken at a tremendous pace with deadly accuracy. And as she says, her singing is fiery. It’s a song you can’t help moving to, or smiling as you listen. And it’ll be sensational when played live.
I also love the Albert King one, For the Love of a Man, where the horns give it huge sound. With horns and guitars blasting you might wonder about how the vocals fare – no problem for Connor, whose singing on this album is stellar. We expect a Joanna Connor album to blow us away with the guitar work, but her vocal performance here is maybe the best we’ve heard of her. On songs like I Feel So Good and Please Help, she sounds like she is really cutting loose. That, apparently, came with Bonamassa’s encouragement.
“Joe told me, people know you can really play the guitar, but the vocals are gonna surprise everyone. And that was Joe just pushing me, you know, pushing me to the limit of what I could do with my voice. So, he knew what he was doing, I think.”
Bonamassa’s stamp is clearly on the album. So, how did it come about that Joanne and Joe started working together?
“He saw some of my videos – people post videos of me online, and Joe put one of my videos on his sites, on social media and he said something about my talent and that I deserve to be recognized – something like that. So I reached out to him through direct message. I’m like, Hi, this is Joanna Connor! And thank you. And this is my contact information, if you ever want to get in touch with me. And he did immediately. Like within few hours. Then it just started rolling. That was in May of 2019. And then, Joe said, we gotta get into the studio, I’d like to record a record with you. And so that’s how we started the conversation.”
The way the album has turned out, with such an evident definition, I asked Joanna if she and Joe had a clear vision for the record at the outset.
“I had no clue. He asked me, but then he said, listen, I have a vision for this record. I want to make a record – I’m being selfish – that I want to listen to. And he said, I want to bring out all your best qualities throughout the whole record. Then he asked me, could I trust him in the project? I’m like, sure, you have a great reputation and done so much. So I let him take control and I just tried to do the best that I could.
“Joe brought a lot of humor, a lot of very dry humor, which I like; a little sarcasm, which I can totally relate to. And so that helped. And he was just a straight shooter, you know?
“With the guitar stuff, basically we’d just try to get a sound. He would give me an idea like, Hey, why don’t you try to do a Hound Dog Taylor type thing, be real raw. And the other times he’d just let me play and wouldn’t say anything. But with the vocals, he was much more hands-on.”
In the liner notes, Joanna says that Joe painted pictures for her with each cut, and then she “fleshed those stories out.” I wondered what that really means?
“It was kind of like Joe was a movie director. Most of the songs are about men and women: so Joe painted a scenario to try to get me in the moment of the song – ‘it’s like you walk in the club and your man is there with another woman.’ Every song he’d make up a scenario for me.”
In working with such a top-class band and Joe Bonamassa playing guitar, I asked Joanna if – despite being a very seasoned professional, and successful, performer – she was at all nervous in that environment to start with?
“Oh, extremely! Beforehand, as the whole months would go by, I was like, is this really going to happen? I was thinking, Whoa, I’m walking into a huge platform here with these legendary players and top-notch studio people. Of course, I’ve done it, I’ve played with some legendary people along the way, but still, this was something brand new for me. And I kinda had to coach myself down the aisle when I was on the plane, you know! But you got to give it your best and let go of these nerves and just let it happen. But I’m kind of nervous about new situations anyways. People always say, Oh, I can’t tell that you’re nervous. Well, if you were inside my brain, it’s a zoo in there!
“But once I started laying down those grooves and playing, they were all such nice guys, they were very down to earth. You never know, because people like that might be condescending, but they were totally cool. And we just had a blast and we were all in one room so it was kinda like being on stage.”
I wanted to know a bit about Joanna’s blues background. As she told me, she’s played with some legendary blues artists and spent her career playing in Chicago blues clubs. What, I asked her, is the continual drawing power of the blues? Why is this music so powerful, and why does it still attract people?
“Blues is the music of the soul. It’s the music that came from pain, sorrow and suffering. But also joy, from a group of people that had to deal with the harshest of harsh things. And I think all great music, unfortunately, usually comes from that kind of suffering. I think it really just speaks to the human emotion. And then, you know, there are the rhythmic qualities. But I think what draws you in is, when it’s played right, it’s honest music. There’s no pretense involved and I think that’s appealing.”
We’d all agree with that. And that’s why I suppose, the blues have transcended its original context, and people all over the world and in different situations can respond to it. What drew Joanna Conner to the blues when she was younger?
“My mother was a huge music lover. She wasn’t a mainstream person – she loved jazz and blues and rock. My mother had me when she was 32 – in those days, kind of old. I was her first kid. She was born in 1930, and by the time I was around she could have been listening to show music or something really corny, but she was really up on everything. And she brought that to me and I heard it my whole life. So it was part of what I grew up listening to.”
The young Joanna Connor starting to play guitar, was also down to her mother. “I woke up one day and she’s like, there is something for you in the living room, you’re going to play guitar. Really? I never had asked her for one!
“I had a strange journey with the guitar because I started off playing classical. Then I played acoustic. I had a teacher that taught me ragtime, Piedmont blues, Delta blues, and then the slide. After that I switched to electric and started singing in a band. But I really could never solo, that escaped me, although I was always a very good rhythm guitar player. So eventually when I was 22 and moved to Chicago, I said, listen, I gotta really focus on how to solo. It all came in stages, but I think I always had a good feel for music. I was always playing an instrument and singing. It’s just in my DNA in some way. But I worked hard at it too.”
When you listen to Connor’s previous album, Rise, it’s much more varied musically than this latest one, quite jazzy and funky in places – you’ve got all those musical influences that she imbibed from she was a child coming through there. So although 4801 South Indiana Avenue is an out and out blues album, Joanna Connor is not simply a blues artist, she’s a musician capable of adapting her playing to a range of genres, when the need arises.
She’s had a long career and a successful one. I wondered how it has been for here as a woman operating in what is often a genre dominated by men?
“My younger brother and I were talking and he said, well, you know, you have a strong personality! I guess I do! So that was one thing that carried me through. I wasn’t timid about things – not that I don’t get nervous, but I feel like I will stand up for myself, no question about it. But it was kind of lonely, because it’s mostly men and you’re never quite in the boys’ club. So, you’re definitely walking a path by yourself. And especially when I started, there was really just less than a handful of women playing an instrument like that.”
Joanna Conner is an incredibly hardworking professional musician, playing around 200 shows a year. Before, of course, the pandemic stopped everything in its tracks. And she’s been doing that for an awfully long time. She clearly loves what she does. What is it about performing at this high level that excites her?
“You know, the first time I ever really played with a band when I was seventeen. I was freaking out for a few days before the gig, but as soon as the lights on the stage went on and the people were there and the band started playing, I swear, I said, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life! I absolutely fell in love with it.
“First and foremost, it’s playing with a great band that brings me the most joy. And then if the audience is there with us, then it could be really transcendent and special. But it’s first the band, that interaction of musicians that really brought me into playing music.”
Not having that over this past year, though, has clearly been a frustration. Although she and her band played a few outdoors, private-hire shows last year, it’s basically been over a year without performing.
“It’s been strange. I haven’t not played music for more than three weeks at a time in forty years. I’ve been through a multitude of emotions. Sometimes I play my guitar now and I want to cry. And then other times I’m like, well, it’s good to take a break. The thing that’s kind of disconcerting is there’s a lot of famous clubs that are not going to reopen all around the States. I mean, when you become a musician, there’s no guarantee of anything, you’re always living on the edge. And so that part I’m sort of used to, but I’ve never been in any situation like this. There have been economic downturns, there was nine-eleven and so on, but for all of us this is an unprecedented time.”
And it’s a great pity that Joanna doesn’t have the opportunity to take this record out on the road for the time being. These are songs that, with Joanna’s energy and commitment, will fire up audiences for sure, creating an electric atmosphere. But hopefully, with vaccines and good sense prevailing, we’ll get through this, and we’ll get to experience the exhilarating energy of a Joanna Connor performance. Until then, just get the album, turn up the volume and let these classic-but new songs bring the blues to life for you in new ways.