Release date: March 7, 2021
Keeping The Blues Alive Records
By Greg Easterling
Photo: Jennifer Noble
Trying to recreate a bygone era is never easy. If you go too far to be authentic, you risk sacrificing spontaneity for a slavish devotion to tradition. If you don't go far enough, you might be criticized for missing the mark entirely. With her latest release, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, Joanna Connor manages to walk the line between either extreme, bringing something new and inspired to the classic Chicago blues sound.
Connor arrived in Chicago early enough in the Eighties to tap into a thriving blues scene and many of the songs she covers on 4801 South Indiana Avenue are by legendary blues artists who were still active back then: Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, and James Cotton. A glance at the album cover's attractive retro design (by Kate Moss, Moonshine Design) and vintage booklet photos by veteran Chi town blues/jazz photographer Marc PoKempner makes the connection all the more obvious. 4801 South Indiana Avenue was also the Chicago street address of legendary South Side blues club Theresa's Lounge where many of the real legends once performed on a near nightly basis.
The genesis for the 4801 South Indiana Avenue project was a performance video of Connor that came to the attention of blues/rock guitarist and entrepreneur Joe Bonamassa. He remembered opening for her at House of Blues in Chicago many years ago and felt privately that Connor had yet to make the blues record for which she was destined. In Joanna's often ferocious slide guitar playing, Bonanassa heard a quality that he could pair with an album of classic Chicago blues that would benefit both Connor and his own record label -- the name of which announces its intent -- Keeping The Blues Alive Records. Bonamassa and Connor decamped to Oceanway Studios in Nashville for a few days in 2020 to collaborate on a new album with more than a tip of the hat to the past masters of the blues.
When you arrive at 4801 South Indiana Avenue, you have literally reached your “Destination” which is the title of the album's opening track. Penned by onetime Nighthawk Jimmy Thackery, it serves as a mission statement for the album and the artist, not to mention a great album opener with its driving beat and blazing slide solo in the opening seconds of the song. When Connor sings, 'I'm gonna reach my destination someday,” you have no doubt that she will. Original Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall lends his still strong voice for background vocals with Bonamassa and guitarist Josh Smith also helping out. Onetime Stevie Ray Vaughan/ Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans contributes the first of many outstanding solos here.
From your destination, you may drift to thoughts of home with “Come Back Home,” a rearrangement of a Hound Dog Taylor song with the original title of “Sadie”. From your first listen to this song by a Chicago blues legend, you also realize that Connor is not attempting to imitate Hound Dog Taylor’s sound but instead is capturing the emotion with a different arrangement and instrumentation. Lyrically it's plaintive, “How come you treat me the way you do?” which is always a fair question in this kind of scenario.
There's a personal connection between Connor and the author of the next song, “Bad News,” the late, great Luther Allison. She toured in Europe with Allison for almost ten years before cutting back on the travel to spend more time at home and regular gigs at Kingston Mines and House Of Blues in Chicago. Connor and Bonamassa play this one as a dirge for the sad revelations to come with passages of intense slide guitar and an especially outstanding piano solo by Wynans. Bonamassa frames this piece with the sound of tolling bells, similar in intent to the way AC/DC used them in Hells Bells and local legend Paul Butterfleld employed this sound for the song “Tolling Bells” (decades ago for his third album The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw).
“Bad News” also makes it obvious that Connor is pushing herself harder vocally on this album with the encouragement of producer Bonamassa, who wanted her vocal intensity to mirror that of her slide guitar playing. It takes Connor to a level at times previously inhabited by the likes of Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. It's not always pretty but it's real; early returns indicate this is a change that her fanbase readily accepts. At 6:26, it's the album's longest track and a worthy salute to Connor's mentor Allison and his Chicago legacy.
The next song “I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie)” is from the Magic Sam catalog and makes you want to move it on the dance floor, with a nice fluid slide guitar solo and an innovative arrangement that literally bring the song to a standstill at one point before the band comes roaring back. It's one you really have to hear to believe!
The next song requires a sex change to the title! The Don Nix number, “For The Love Of A Man” becomes “For The Love Of A Woman” in Connor's hands. It's a salute to the blues legend who made it famous, Albert King, and the kind of blues ballad once popular with the other Kings of the blues, B.B and Freddie. Connor delivers a solo in the style of Albert, who was also an important influence and friend to Stevie Ray Vaughan. The horn section makes its presence known in the next song, Lowell Fulsom's “Trouble Trouble” which is one of the most blues radio friendly cuts on the album and also includes some nice contributions from Josh Smith on guitar.
The next two tracks plunge you back into the gritty South and West Sides of Chicago on some long lost Saturday night in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Connor's reading of J.B. Hutto's “Please Help” is intended as a tribute to Hound Dog Taylor, who exposed a whole different side of Chicago blues to the world when Bruce Iglauer began recording him for Alligator Records in the 1970s. It's got the grit and sweat you would expect to wring out of your clothes after a night in the presence of such musical passion. Mel London's “Cut You Loose” was a favorite of many performers, not the least of which was James Cotton, and Connor reinvents it here with a slower, intense performance rearranged by Bonamassa and Smith.
“Part Time Love” is a personal favorite of Connor's from having performed it with a variety of Chicago blues singers in clubs over the years. She sings it like she means it over a bed of horns provided by Steve Patrick on trumpet, Mark Douthit on saxophone and Barry Green on trombone. The album concludes with a very personal number, “It's My Time” that serves as a bookend with the opening song “Destination” as a mission statement for Connor. Written by Smith independently of this project, Connor talks the lyrics which reflect the challenges of being a woman in the male dominated music business; she also acknowledges that this album just might make a change for her now with help from Bonamassa and Keeping The Blues Alive Records.
4801 South Indiana Avenue is both a celebration of the past and a vital recording for the present. Just as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and the Blues Brothers Band and movie helped to focus attention on the blues again in the 1980s, who's to say it couldn't happen again with a new generation in Chicago? The term Chicago blues is still regarded with enthusiasm though out the rest of the world, especially in Europe and Japan. Seminal blues music labels Alligator and Delmark are still releasing worthwhile records and, once they reopen, the clubs will continue to host vital contemporary blues performances by Billy Branch, John Primer, Dave Specter, Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, Nick Moss, Sharon Lewis, and many others. Let Joanna Connor's 4801 South Indiana Avenue be one of the recordings that helps relaunch the now dormant Chicago blues scene after the pandemic has passed. And it should be the theme for a night on the Pritzker Pavilion Main Stage at the next Chicago Blues Festival when it returns in full force. Keeping The Blues Alive is not just the name of Joe Bonamassa's record label, it's also a mission that Connor's latest recording can play a vital role in advancing the future of the blues in Chicago and the world.
To listen or buy the music: https://shop.jbonamassa.com/collections/ktba-records
About the Author: Greg Easterling is a veteran Chicago radio air personality and media member of the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. He is the host of American Backroads on WDCB, 90.9 FM in the Chicago area, Thursday nights at 9 p.m. He also hosts the Easterling Experience online or by app at WCCR.US. from 7 p.m.-12 mid, M-F.