September 30, 2021

It seems that every new release in the wide world of blues rock these days has Joe Bonamassa’s fingerprints on it somewhere. Not that that’s a bad thing – on the contrary, as well as being the world’s foremost blues guitarist, his mentoring and production skills and marketing acumen seem to sprinkle a little stardust on to everything he touches. He had been good friends with Joanne Shaw-Taylor, one of the UK’s top blues rock guitarists, for some years, so when she announced her intention to record an album of blues covers, he could hardly help but become enthusiastically involved. When he and his production partner, Josh Smith, were formally invited to handle production duties on the new album, and especially when he drafted in his own regular keyboard maestro Reese Wynans, plus a three-piece horn section, it was a foregone conclusion that the result would be an excellent record, with less emphasis on the rock, and heavier on the blues influence than usual.

What I hadn’t expected is that the spotlight would be on Joanne’s voice, rather than her guitar playing. She’s an excellent blues guitarist to be sure, and there is plenty of guitar on the album, but this set is more about her smoky, soulful vocals, and it works a treat, because she really does have a great voice. It’s shown to good effect on the opening number, a cover of Stop Messin’ Around, one of the more up-tempo songs from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac in 1968, played in full-on pub rock style.  Throw in a great Reese Wynans piano solo, and this number is actually one of the highlights of the record. It’s also one of the best known numbers; from here on in, the set is composed either of pretty obscure tracks, or at least lesser-known numbers from well-known artists. The second number for instance, a smooth, rolling rocker, is a cover of Little Milton’s If That Ain’t A Reason. The Paladins’ Keep On Lovin’ Me comes next, although this version is heavily influenced by Magic Sam’s recording of the song. An up-tempo, minor key jazz blues with horns, the rhythm guitar is heavily reverbed, but the solo is coil-tapped or something similar, giving a sharp, treble-heavy sound that adds to the retro feel.

Photo by Christie Goodwin

If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody is a downbeat, almost maudlin, traditional blues ballad, but Joanne kicks the overdrive up a gear for an extended playout solo which works really well – then we delve into more commercial, recent territory with the up-tempo pop-rocker Don’t Go Away Mad,  which was recorded by the supergroup Little Village, featuring Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe, in 1991. This one features a vocal duet between Joanne and Joe Bonamassa, who also contributes guitar work. Then we have the only original number on the album, a one-and-a-half minute instrumental which goes under the name of Scraps Vignette, sounding like an extract from the middle of a jam session with a guitar riff reminiscent of Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step. It’s good fun while it lasts, although Joanne confesses that it started life as the backing track for a song which didn’t really work out.

She takes on one of the giants of the blues with the Albert King cover Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me, another pub-rock 12-bar with an even, rolling riff, followed by another Little Milton song, Let Me Down Easy from 1968, a very slow, major-key bluesy ballad with guitar arpeggios in the background. Two Time My Lovin’ is a gentle, mid-tempo shuffle from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, with something of a grim, defeatist lyric – pure blues if you will. The guitar playing puts me in mind of Snowy White in places, especially when he was deputising for Peter Green on his In The Skies album.

I Don’t Know What You’ve Got is a cover of a Little Richard song, but unusually for him, it’s a blues ballad rather than a manic rock’n’Roll juggernaut. Joanne’s version features Mike Farris, and has an extremely vintage-style sound, mostly due to Wynans’ warbling Hammond organ backing. The set plays out on Three Time Loser, a bluesy shuffle with a nice piano solo.

I have a confession to make here. It’s great that there are so many singer/guitarists inhabiting the blues arena, and some of them, Joanne Shaw-Taylor included, are really good. But it’s difficult to find an audience for straight-ahead blues, so they mostly diversify into pop-rock, hard rock, pop or soul. All of the artists who are billed as exponents of the blues play solos built around the blues scale sure enough, but the song construction is a different matter, and  it’s difficult to find an album that actually includes more than one or two actual blues numbers. As such, it’s a real kick for me that Joanne decided to go ahead and record an album that is as heavily blues-based as this one, and that Bonamassa encouraged the endeavour and helped to make it happen. Personally, I would like to hear more of this, because it’s my kind of thing.

Joanne Shaw Taylor’s “The Blues Album” is released by KTBA Records on September 24th via www.ktbarecords.com