Release date: November 8, 2019
M.C. Records By Greg Easterling
If you were expecting a standard traditional sounding blues record from Joanna Connor nearly twenty years into the new millennium then think again. Not only is her new M.C. Records album a mix of more contemporary blues influenced styles, it's a veritable guitar clinic put on by a singer/songwriter who Guitar World says “might be the best or most original blues-based guitar player you're likely to come across today or tomorrow.” Rise is Connor's third album for M.C. and the follow up to her 2016 release, Six String Stories. It's been a long road since Connor began her recording career for the Blind Pig label several decades ago and the experience shows.
Connor has retooled the band for 2020 with Delby Littlejohn on keyboards and Joewaun Jay Red Scott on bass. Cameron Lewis and Tyrone Mitchell split drum duties on the new album. Connor sings and plays guitar including slide, acoustic and electric with endorsements from the legendary Gibson Guitars brand, Orange Amps and Rocky Mountain Slides. Fellow blues guitarist Sue Foley featured Connor recently in her monthly Guitar Player column adding to the anticipation of Rise's release in early November. A brief tour of Connor's native New England in October preceded the album's release before Connor returned to Sweet Home Chicago to resume her long running gigs at House of Blues and Kingston Mines, where she once jammed with Jimmy Page during her apprenticeship with Dion Payton and the 43rd Street Blues Band.
Rise opens with “Flip”, an uptempo band songwriting effort that gets the album off to a very funky start with a bit of rap late in the song. It's a celebration of seduction inspired by a winter-spring romance. So it's sort of a different kind of flip, documented by Connor. She cranks it up on the first of many sassy slide solos throughout the album with strong support from Littlejohn on keyboards. It's the first, but certainly not the last, time that strong 1-2 organ-guitar combo will make us want to flip.
Connor follows with a duet with special guest guitarist, Mike Zito from St. Louis and a founding former member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood band. It's her own original song “Bad Hand” as in a bad poker hand that's been dealt and the presence of the respected Zito brings extra gravitas to the proceedings. After an acoustic intro with some nice slide work, it rocks in a bluesy vein that benefits from a Zito solo and a strong piano part by the talented Littlejohn that's reminiscent of Chuck Leavell (Allman Brothers/Rolling Stones keys player) on the Allman's Brothers and Sisters record.
The next track is a two-minute Connor instrumental entitled “Joanna in A,” a fast jazzy guitar work out that includes the sympathetic sax of Ryan Shea. It's yet another moment that demonstrates the range of Connor's considerable guitar skills, which are frequently on display in her adopted hometown of Chicago during both acoustic and electric sets at the legendary Kingston Mines. And she’s a regular at House of Blues located at the base of the Chicago's famed Marina City. Sometimes you’ll see her at Buddy Guy’s Legends, too.
It's back to rockier territory on “Earthshaker,” in praise of another fellow Chicago blues man much admired by author Connor who again shines here with another great slide solo. The title track comes next with a different touch as Connor moves into jazz fusion mode here, displaying shades of Larry Carlton or George Benson with Littlejohn on organ once again.
The first half of the album comes to end with Connor's version of the pop jazz standard “Since I Fell For You,” covered by many since the 1940s including Bonnie Raitt on her first album. While Raitt is a big influence on Connor, she devises her own arrangement of the Budd Johnson penned classic here. Then it's time for another short instrumental interlude called “My Irish Father.” It's a special moment for guitar lovers with a mix of acoustic and slide, a real jam for 2:36. “Mutha” follows with more electric guitar intensity, band vocals and a title that reflects the fact that Connor is a bad mutha on guitar!
Then it's Rise's second and final cover song, a very cool choice of the Sly Stone hit “If You Want Me To Stay.” At 5:52 it's the album's longest cut and instrumentally a chance for the studio band to stretch out as Connor dispenses with the lyrics. It's also a reminder of influential Sixties legend Stone who was ahead of his time when he eventually flamed out creatively. “Cherish And Worship You” is a hard charging anthem of devotion and lust that rocks as hard as anything on the album with special emphasis on the guitar solos once more.
Getting close to the end now, it's “Blues Tonight,” a fast slide guitar workout with power and purpose. Not only is “Blues Tonight” the song title, it's a mantra for Connor's long career during which she has often played the blues in Chicago on a nearly nightly basis. As a single working mom at times, it has given her the opportunity to employ her guitar skills to earn a paycheck and still be home with the kids at the end of the night no matter how late that might be. It's much better than being in a Motel Six or in the back of a bus at a truck stop outside Omaha.
The album closes with a forceful open letter to fellow Americans called “Dear America,” one of the more effective blends of rock and rap that you'll ever hear, serving as a warning to the nation about four more years of misdirection and bigotry at the highest levels of our government. It's a strain that should be familiar to baby boom blues rock listeners who were once influenced by ripped from the headlines songs like “Ohio,” “Monster,” “American Tune” and “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.” Vocalists and rappers Alphonso Buggz Dinero and Ricky Liontones deliver the word over the ominous dirge-like “When The Levee Breaks,” the Memphis Minnie blues classic covered so well by Led Zeppelin. It's a timely message well worth hearing at yet another crucial crossroads in American history.
Rise was produced by Connor along with Eric Sraga and bassist Joewaun Scott at Information Payback Reel in Chicago and mastered by Fred Guarino at Tiki Studios in Glen Cove, New York. The Executive Producer is M.C. Records label chief Mark Carpentieri.
Connor says Rise is a very personal statement from start to finish, “It's all about rising in life, rising to know yourself, rising to meet the challenge of exploring yourself deeper.”
Joanna will be one of the headliners at the Hey Nonny Winter Blues Summit in Arlington Hts. on Feb. 1, 2020. Connor will be featured February 18-22 on Joe Bonamassa's Keeping The Blues Alive Cruise. Or you can catch her at Kingston Mines or House of Blues in Chicago when she's in town.
Read more about Connor at www.Joannaconnor.com
For info or to buy the music: https://shop.mc-records.com/products/joanna-connor-rise
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM). He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.