Her first album was released in 1990, and she has been a presence on the Chicago blues scene for even longer. But how many Brits are familiar with Joanna Connor’s work? She has been lighting up the internet with this new album, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, and it’s about time. Even now, she may have been languishing in the shadows were in not for the endorsement of one Joe Bonamassa, who saw a video of her raw, screaming blues-rock on Social Media and offered to place himself at the helm of her ship to produce the storming, rough and ready blues album he could see she was capable of. It says a lot for the veteran lady rocker that she was happy to put herself in the hands of the young pretender and trust her career to his care. It was a good decision, because the result is dramatic.
Bonamassa and his production partner Josh Smith suggested a raft of classic blues songs for Connor to perform, even providing a whole new band for her to work with. Joe has gone on record apologising to Connor for ordering her about in a headmasterish fashion, but she’s totally cool with it and appears to be overjoyed with the result, as well she might; this is the first straight blues album she has done, and it’s a tick off her bucket list.
The selections are a revelation; certainly not the hackneyed classics we might expect; the album kicks off for instance, with an Assassins number called Destination, starting in on a thudding John Bonham-style drum pattern, with rasping slide reminiscent of George Thorogood coming in over the top. The band joins in on a driving blues rocker with a southern edge – Jimmy Hall provides duetting vocals and ex-Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans pulls out a storming piano solo.
Wynans also demonstrates his substantial piano chops on the riffy, pounding, pub-rock slide number Come Back Home, as on many other songs on the album. Connor had toured as supporting act for Luther Allison for ten years, so they also included his downbeat slow blues, Bad News, complete with a tolling bell on the intro and outro. Connor herself settled on the lead single, I Feel So Good, a rolling freight train of a number, complete with its wing-and-a-prayer rhythm changes and stops, in which she seems to have an almost telepathic bond with drummer Lemar Carter.
A horn section adds an extra layer to the lazy Trouble Trouble and a couple of other tracks, all the more impactful for not appearing on every song. Hound Dog Taylor’s Please Help stands out, largely because of the non-standard drum pattern; Carter strikes the snare on an offbeat pattern the whole way though. It’s jars a little and it’s supposed to; that’s one way to make a standard 12-bar memorable! Similarly with Cut You Loose, which features an abrupt tempo shift for a couple of bars in each verse, giving the song an extra edge without straying from the standard blues structure – Connor’s bag-of-nails vocal chords are at their raspiest on this song too.
The final number, It’s My Time, is the only original track; written by Josh Smith, it’s a semi-spoken word, atmospheric piece that seems to fit Connor’s mood; some crowd noise gives it a kind of party, pub atmosphere.
The album title itself, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, pays tribute to legendary 1950s Chicago basement blues club Theresa’s Lounge, sadly no longer running. Joanna Connor usually mixes elements of R’n’B, jazz and soul into her output, but it’s clear her roots are in the blues – and this album pays tribute to Chicago’s massive impact on the genre. And however much credit may be due to Bonamassa and his team for the showcase, it’s all about Connor’s screaming vocal chords and cudgelling slide guitar, both of which are extraordinary.
Joanna Connor’s new album “4801 South Indiana Avenue” is released by KTBA Records on February 26th via www.jbonamassa.com/albums/2021/joannaconnor/4801