Release date: June 9, 2023
Gulf Coast Records
By Greg Easterling
One of Chicago’s favorite hometown blues bashers has released a brand new album for the summer of 2023. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Joanna Connor calls her new record Best of Me and it’s her very first release with Gulf Coast Records from Nederland, Texas, headed by her friend and sometime collaborator Mike Zito.
It’s been a long road now for Connor, born in Brooklyn, raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts and schooled in the blues in Chicago, arriving in 1984. Beginning her formal recording career for Blind Pig Records five years later, Connor followed with releases for the Ruf and M.C. labels. Joe Bonamassa reached out in 2021 to co-produce the powerful throwback effort 4801 South Indiana Avenue which zoomed to #1 on the international blues record charts. Connor and Bonamassa brought back the spirit of legendary South Side blues club Theresa’s -- the address of which served as the album title. The album succeeded with strong arrangements of Chicago electric blues classics by Magic Sam, Luther Allison, James Cotton and many others. It was the record that Bonamassa felt Connor needed to make with the sponsorship of his own KTBA record label.
Flash forward two years post pandemic to 2023 and the arrival of a new album Best of Me, Connor’s 15th release consisting of nearly all new songs composed by her and bass player Shawn Gotti Calloway. Between the two of them, they composed ten of the album’s eleven new songs, no small accomplishment but perhaps a benefit of the pandemic down time. The mission is different this time as Connor has huddled with members of her road band The Wrecking Crew to make a more personal album that reflects various concerns of life, mostly romantic. The titles tell the story “I Lost You”, “Pain and Pleasure”, “All I Want Is You” and “Shadow Lover”. This collection of songs is less historically linked than the last one, more about the soul of a woman and her day to day emotions. These are realistic stories that touch real people; the similarities between the artist and the listener can be a powerful bond.
Best of Me opens with some “House Rules” preceded by the live recorded introduction, “It’s Showtime…” by Frank Pellegrino, longtime manager of the Kingston Mines blues club in Chicago, Connor’s performance home away from home in the Windy City for decades now. “House Rules” lays down the album’s original groove plus it’s an effective way to open the album stating the theme. Connor doesn’t waste any time addressing the assembled, “Get your ass on the dance floor” is her call to action. The Grooveline Horns kick off the party with Fernando Castillo on trumpet and flugelhorn, Carlos Sosa on sax and flute, Raul Vallejo on trombone and Eric Demmer with the sax solos on this cut. Connor contributes a nice, concise solo soon after with acclaimed producer/guitarist Josh Smith also helping out on guitar. Smith also played on Joanna’s previous album on Bonamassa’s label.
Next, “Pain and Pleasure” is a ballad that starts slow but builds momentum quickly. It’s an appreciation of new love with hope for the future “for the moment and maybe forever”. Curtis Moore, Jr. supplies some nice organ accompaniment here and Smith reappears on guitar. While Connor’s guitar work is always the star, she’s concentrating as much on her vocals this time and this song is a good example of that; Connor exudes a relaxed and easy quality on this one.
The title track follows and the Grooveline horn charts are reminiscent of the Memphis influenced lines once heard on records by Mike Bloomfield’s Electric Flag and Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band. The focus is on the lyrics and Connor’s vocals are especially up front this time. “You got the best of me baby, why did you do it to me baby? Why, Why, Why?”, she pleads.
The album rocks ahead with “Highway Child” next, the best blues rocker on this record. Connor and Joe Bonamassa duel it out guitar-wise on this ode to the road. “Gotta keep movin’, I’m a highway child!” It should be a consensus cut for blues radio programs.
More romantic loss and yearning is documented in “I Lost You” and “All I Want is You” while “Two Of a Kind” and “Shadow Lover” suggest the possibility for something more. “Two” is another top-notch, up-tempo jam with funky horns, great keyboards and a steady solo from Connor to match. “Shadow” got label president Mike Zito into the studio to add some special guitar.
The album’s lone cover,”Mercury Blues” has been recorded several times over the decades, initially by the song’s authors K. C. Douglas with Robert Geddins. Steve Miller gave the song major exposure when he waxed it for his bestselling Fly Like An Eagle record. Connor picks up the theme here and grinds it out with her slide guitar finesse, wile singing: “Crazy about a Mercury/Cruisin’ up and down the road…”. Dan Souvigny joins the band here with rhythm guitar and additional keys. Former Pearl Jam drummer and Connor admirer David Abbruzzese adds percussion too.
“Greatest of These” and “Shine On” are originals that both summarize and seek to inspire the listener in closing. Blues-rock guitarist Gary Hoey and harp virtuoso Jason Ricci, help out on backing vocals and their respective instruments on “Shine,” -- one of six numbers co-composed by Connor with Shaun Calloway.
Best of Me brings many elements together for Connor this time making for a well-balanced effort. Joanna’s vocals sound more natural this time around compared to her powerhouse blues shoutin’ wails on 4801 South Indiana Avenue; her guitar playing remains as fine as ever. The Wrecking Crew found a comfortable groove in the studio complemented by a half dozen very special guests. July 2023 finds Connor and the band hitting the East Coast and Europe, returning to Chicago late in the month before going out again in August.
For info or to buy the music: www.gulfcoastrecords.net/
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. Greg spins funk and fusion jazz rock, on the Friday into Saturday overnight shift, on WDCB from 12 mid-5 a.m.