February 12, 2021

Oh yeah, the early two thousands, when we played for tens of people!

It’s always a bit embarrassing when a new guitarist suddenly registers on your bluesometer, and you have the sneaking suspicion you should have known them all along. Having been into the blues for over 40 years, from Clapton, The Bluesbreakers, Peter Green, BB King and Little Walter, plus a ton of local bands, to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Bonamassa, dragnetting a hundred other names, big and small, young and old, male and female – somehow, I’d missed this one. And it’s a bad miss.

OK, so I’m not the only one – I mean, Joanna Connor is not on everyone’s radar. But still, having moved from New York to Chicago in her early twenties to immerse herself in the blues, sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the business, Connor was undoubtedly amongst the early female pioneers in the predominantly male preserve that was blues lead guitar in the 1980s. I’ve done the maths and I reckon she has to be about my age, but the face looking at me across the Zoom link is open, friendly and deceptively youthful. It seems like a trite question to ask, but I have to ask her what kind of reception she received back in the day.

“It wasn’t just the blues,” she says, “I mean it was unusual for women in music, period, in the early ‘80s, especially in guitar rather than singing or piano. I was a young girl and it was a mixed bag, some musicians were absolutely loving me and supportive, others were threatened, others were annoyed, others were like, you know, the Hollywood casting couch scenario. You’d never know how someone was going to react. It was all those experiences.”

Photo by Maryam Wilcher

She made it work though, and I say so. “Well thank you!” she replies. “That’s because I’m stubborn!” Even so, her name may have stayed in the niche markets if it were not for the intervention of Joe Bonamassa, currently the biggest name in blues and a dedicated supporter of fledgling talent – his Keeping The Blues Alive foundation was created specifically to help young artists further their careers in the blues arena. With the best will in the world though, Connor is not a young, fledgling artist, so I have to know how that opportunity came about. It turns out that early in his career, he had actually opened for her at a Blues restaurant gig.

“That was in 2002 I believe. I couldn’t remember, but Joe remembered! It was a Monday night, ‘cos for years I used to play every Monday at the House of Blues, in their restaurant. It was called the Back Porch Stage. I remembered reading about him in Guitar Player when he was with Bloodline, and that had to have been a long time ago, then I kind of lost track of him, but Joe says, oh yeah, the early two thousands, when we played for tens of people!”

Bloodline was a band put together by Bonamassa’s management when he was a teenager, to publicise his precocious talent. It was composed of sons of famous musicians: The Doors, The Allman Brothers, Miles Davis, Sammy Hagar. Bonamassa himself hails from a line of professional musicians, but by the time he supported Connor at that less-than-famous gig, he was a pro with his own band. Fast-forward fifteen years, and their paths crossed once more, via the power of the internet.

“He had seen a few videos of me, and I guess he responded to one in particular. He retweeted it, I saw this, and I was like wow! Joe Bonamassa! And I was going kind of crazy. I reached out to him with a direct message, and he responded right away – he said I can help you! That was the greatest sentence I had heard in many years. And he actually did! I’ve had run-ins with pretty famous people who say I’m going to do this and that, and it didn’t happen. I mean, there’s the ‘Hollywood promise’, but he delivered. He’s a real human, he’s not a showbiz guy.”

Bonamassa was struck by the powerful vocal and guitar work he saw and heard, and believed that there was a raw seam of talent that had never truly been tapped. He made it his mission to produce the album he knew Connor was capable of, and made her an offer she had no intention of refusing. The result is Connor’s new, raw and powerful album 4801 South Indiana Avenue, recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity, but it was clear that Joe had a definite result in mind and Connor had to knuckle down and do it his way. Stubborn as she claims to be, I wonder whether she found it hard to take direction from the young pretender?

“Well he’s in his forties now, so he’s not too young – although he’s a lot younger than me! But no, I had no problem. He said to me, when we do this project, I have this particular vision, and you have to trust me. And I was like, you know – I think you might know what you’re doing here! So I completely trusted him. But it was still a risk, because what if we got in the studio and I disagreed with everything he was thinking? It would have been awkward you know. But fortunately, I think it was meant to be, because we really gelled. And it was very easy, and actually very uplifting and it felt really special, I could feel it.”

Photo by Allison Morgan

I had heard that Joe’s first point of order was to throw out all of her effects pedals? “Ha! He did! He brought one very expensive overdrive, it’s like hand made, it’s very coveted and he had me play through that – then he took my pedals and he’s like, nah, no no no; I don’t want you to sound like 1980s Winger. He’s funny. And I’m like, aaargh, my pedals…”

So it was basically no effects at all, just plain vintage gear, straight though old-school amps? “Yeah, first time ever. I mean I’ve done some tracks where I played more jazz stuff, maybe one per album, and I’ll play with no effects; maybe a chorus pedal but no overdrive. But usually I’m stompin’ on those pedals!”

The next thing was the choice of musicians. Bonamassa brought in fellow guitar prodigy Josh Smith to co-head the project and also play second guitar, and Connor is full of praise for his contribution. “He’s a very, very good musician and he’s very knowledgeable about blues, jazz, rock, country! He’s a guitar player’s guitar player, and he and Joe are kind of teaming up as producers.”

Connor has her own band, but for this project, Bonamassa had some people in mind. Joe stumped up a couple of guest solos himself of course, and also included the piano wizard from his own band, a former member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble. Connor was impressed. “The only one we used from Joe’s band was Reese Wynans, the keyboard player. That was amazing! And we had a rhythm section that Josh Smith had worked with, with Raphael Saadiq and some other projects (Lemar Carter on drums, with bassist Calvin Turner), and they were fantastic. We had Joe and Josh Smith on guitars, and then later on we brought in Jimmy Hall to do vocals. I wasn’t there for that; I was there for the horn section, but they were local union, Nashville horn guys.”

Jimmy Hall does a vocal duet with Connor on the album’s opening track, Destination. I was quite surprised to hear that she wasn’t there when he laid down his track. “No I wasn’t! I’ve met him before; we did a festival together in Holland a couple of years ago when he was with Jeff Beck. He actually knew who I was; I was shocked! And we ran into each other again in the studio when he came by; I think he lives in Nashville. But those vocals were recorded after I was gone. Everything else we recorded live in the studio, except the vocals, which I did later by myself, and the horns and him. Everything else was right there.”

This seems like the right time to ask about the COVID-19 situation. How did they manage to record the album with all the musicians in the same place? Or did they just manage to squeeze it in before the lockdown? “Right before,” says Connor, with that far-away expression that signals a feeling of relief. “Before the world came crashing down, as I call it. We had no clue, it was like some little minor headline about a virus in China at that point. And we thought yeah, whatever, we’ve seen this before. Bird flu. Swine flu…”

So the timing of the recording could not have been better, and the old-school equipment sounds great, but I can’t resist a mischievous prod. There’s a classic slow blues on the album, a cover of Luther Allison’s Bad News. It’s pretty downbeat, and Joe had the idea of putting a tolling bell at the beginning and the end. So I ask whether it was a real bell, or – horror of horrors – a digital sample? Connor is not fazed, laughs and admits all. “That was a sample! I must say, we used two samples; one was crowd noise on the last track, people talking, and one was the bell. Other than that, everything’s organic and regular, you know!”

So, it’s great to attract the attention of a big name like Bonamassa, and no doubt the exposure won’t do her any harm at all. But I have to wonder what actual material difference it made, and I ask Connor whether the new album is that much different from her usual work. “Very different,” she says, “because most of my records have been kind of a mash-up of R’n’B, rock, soul, jazz, blues – everything kind of mashed together. This is the first time it’s been very focussed on blues. I always knew I was going to make a straight blues record one day – even though it’s pretty rocking; I mean it’s not, sleepy at all, but it’s all pure blues. I’m glad I waited, ‘cos I think Joe just produced it so well and I think it was good that I waited to do a record like this.”

Joe makes no secret of the fact that he is very influenced by the British Blues Boom of the 1960s – The Blues Breakers, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Clapton and all. I wonder where Connor’s musical roots are, seeing as she deliberately transplanted herself to Chicago, one of the epicentres of American blues? “It’s a mish-mash. I mean, growing up, I listened to everything from Robert Johnson and Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy when I was really young, to Jimmy Page, to The Stones, to The Yardbirds. I mean, Joe and I definitely intersect there, because I love the English ‘60s, ‘70s blues rock stuff a lot. In fact many times when I play with my band, it’s the thing you’ll hear most. But this was a real Chicago record. I came up on the Chicago scene playing with a lot of legends over the years, so that’s definitely in my blood. And I wanted that; that’s why I moved to Chicago, to experience that and really have it as a part of me.”

Photo by Allison Morgan

One thing that struck me listening to the record is the amount of bottleneck slide guitar. It’s a traditional blues technique for sure, but it requires a whole different mindset to straight, fingered lead guitar. Is it usual for her to lean so heavily on slide? Her answer is short and unequivocal. “No, this is the first record I’ve made with this much slide on it, ever.”

So then I have to ask her how she tunes the guitar for slide. Just to explain: the six strings of a guitar are traditionally tuned to E A D G B E. But slide is played with a metal or glass cylinder slotted over one of the fingers and covering all six strings, so the is little or no flexibility in the note selection. It’s possible to play slide while in standard tuning, but most of the early exponents chose to tune to an open chord, which makes it much easier to avoid duff notes. Connor’s versatility extends to both techniques, it seems. “On this record, we did a lot in standard tuning. We did some in G tuning, some in A. And one was C# minor! So we kind of messed around with tunings. Open G is my thing though. With slide tuning, you just go to the nearest note that makes sense. Make a triad, that’s the rule. Just take a triad, major or minor, go string by string, think OK, what’s the closest thing? Or what can I leave in from the regular tuning? You don’t want to kill your guitar.”

One notable thing about the set is that the songs are all covers. Certainly not the usual suspects; I have to admit that most of them are unfamiliar to me, as indeed are some of the original artists. But clearly, the intention was to use songs that would definitely work, rather than taking a chance with new material as it were. Was the song choice also driven by Joe?

“I chose one,” she says, “which was I Feel So Good, the lead single. Because we were doing that in my band, although not the same way – but that’s a Magic Sam tune, he wrote it. Joe and Josh chose everything else, with my approval. We sat at Joe’s place and it was, ‘How about this song, how about that song…’ Then they set out with their guitars and pens and paper and rearranged things. It was cool to watch!”

A fair bit of imagination has gone into the arrangements as well; on Hound Dog Taylor’s Please Help for instance, drummer Lemar Carter hits the snare on the fourth beat of every bar instead of the usual third, which give the whole thing a quirky, almost drunken lilt, in spite of its standard 12-bar structure.

“Yeah, and he had me play like really sloppy on purpose! ‘Just sound like Hound Dog Taylor or whatever, don’t try to be precise, just go at it.’ And I’m literally just bashing the guitar! It was Joe’s vision – and I’m going to credit him. I mean, I performed and did what I had to do, but he was the one guiding every step of the way, and I think he did it brilliantly. This guy’s much more than one of the best guitar players in the world and a great singer, he’s also a really good producer and arranger.”

What do they say, ‘Man makes plans and God laughs?’

I have to admit, this is something that has struck me too. Making a career out of playing the blues is not easy. There are literally millions of axe slingers out there, some are a bit ordinary, some are really good, and some are jaw-droppingly brilliant, but very few ever break through. Joe has managed to raise himself out of the crowd, and it’s clear there is more than guitar skills at work. Connor is fully in assent. “He’s a great business man. He’s like a hurricane, look at this guy; he’s into everything, and he breathes music in every facet. Me, when it comes to the business side of music, I’m like heeeey,” – she holds her hands up defensively, in a gesture of distaste – “I don’t like it. It’s not my thing, marketing and – ugh. It feels terrible to me, like I shouldn’t be doing that, I’m an artist! But he just covers all the areas, and most people don’t do that.”

The great thing about that is that it doesn’t just benefit Joe, it also helps the beneficiaries of his blues foundation, and it benefits people like Joanna Connor. And to that extent, it benefits us, the listeners, too. She and her regular band have been with MC Records for 20 years, but now I’m wondering if she has found a new, more productive path to travel. ‘Is it a case of off with the old and on with the new’? Maybe, at least in the near future, but the old is not abandoned completely.

“Joe said he has a few more projects in mind for me, so that’s exciting. Because I think it was a great collaboration and I look forward to – well, who knows what we’re going to come up with next?” With the current COVID situation, ‘next’ is a hazy concept. Is it even possible to make plans at the moment? The question meets with a brusque laugh.

“Hah! Well if last year taught me anything, it was ‘Plans?’ What do they say, ‘Man makes plans and God laughs?’ Well, that was the truth! My plan is to try to survive till we can start playing music again. There are some states that never totally closed, like Florida, Texas, Tennessee. But it doesn’t make sense for people like me who live a thousand miles away to go down to Florida for two gigs or something. I think eventually that things will work out for me and I believe this record’s gonna open up a lot of doors – it’s just when? I miss my band terribly, I love my band. We’re just going to have to see what happens. Supposedly this weekend, the clubs here can open up, but no more than 25 people! How does a club survive with 25 people? So we’re just in a holding pattern, it’s like when you’re in a plane and you can’t land, that’s what it kind of feels like.”

Well, wasn’t it BB King who sang, “You better not look down, if you wanna keep on flying?” That stubborn streak is going to come in useful keeping Joanna Connor airborne.

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