Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Six String Stories
By Rex Bartholomew
Joanna Connor might seem like an overnight phenomenon to the 16 million viewers who became familiar with her work through a three-minute video of her shredding a Les Paul at the 2014 North Atlantic Blues Festival. But there is a lot more to this Windy City denizen’s story than this viral bit of Internet fame, as anybody who has caught one of her hundreds of shows at Chicago’s Kingston Mines can tell you.
Connor made her way to Chicago with her blues guitar in 1985, and by 1989 she was signed to Blind Pig Records, and her debut album was the catalyst for embarking on grueling decade of touring the world. In recent years, the touring slowed as she stuck closer to home to be with her family, but somehow she still managed to play 200 gigs a year and continued to hone her already impressive chops. After a hiatus from recording, M.C. Records has released Joanna’s first new studio album in 14 years, and Six String Stories is an amazing piece of work.
Joanna and producer Marion Lance Lewis wrote eight of the ten songs for this project and the album clocks in at almost 50 minutes. It was recorded by Dusty Robennolt at IPR Studios in Chicago, and Connor handled the guitars and lead vocals. She was joined by a first rate crew, including Jeff Lewis on keyboards, and the horn section of Charlie Kimble, Gary Solomon, and Charles Pryor. Marion Lance Lewis provided most of the other parts, including drums, bass, percussion, synthesizer, and backing vocals.
The first song in the set is “It’s a Woman’s Way,” which Joanna wrote for her daughter in order to dispense some motherly advice about romance. But this is no ballad, as there is screaming slide guitar for the intro, and Connor proceeds to howls the lyrics over hammering drums and bass. This is some of the hardest hitting blues-rock you will find today! As expected, there is an amazing extended guitar solo for the second half of the tune, which is refreshing after such a long wait to hear new material from this guitar slinger.
Six String Stories has a lot more than blues-rock, though, and Connor proves that she is a versatile singer, songwriter, and guitarist. She slows the pace down for “We Stayed Together,” a blues song that features edgy vocals from Joanna as she trades verses with her Les Paul. This is followed by a soulful and funky re-interpretation of Jill Scott’s “Golden,” an arrangement that allows Joanna to show off how smooth her voice can be. Steve and Hope Lewis provide the backing vocals here, which is a sweet effect. The other cover is a live cut of Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying,” a song she performs regularly at her gigs. This track lets the listener know that Joanna is not just a studio magician – she has the right stuff and can also deliver the goods in front of a live audience.
An unexpected track on this disc is “Heaven,” a song that starts with nifty African rhythms and morphs into a cool modern gospel tune. Joanna has gospel chops galore, and she is joined by the horns as well as the Lewis Family Singers, whose beautiful voices emphasize the positive message of this song.
There are also instrumentals for listeners to enjoy. “Swamp Swim” is a funky sonic experiment with a bayou feel, courtesy of Lewis’ washboard and some lovely improv work from Omar Coleman on the harp. Omar and Joanna have a wonderful interplay here, and this track takes a few listens to hear everything that is going on. “Halsted Street” is a lot heavier, and it is equal parts Mike Oldfield (remember “Tubular Bells”) and Eddie Van Halen. This song is melodic with tricky rhythms, layers upon layers of guitars, and oodles of guitar harmonics and tapping.
The set closes out with “Young Women Blues,” a song that provides a healthy dose of jazz with heavily processed guitars over a sparse background of double bass and drums. Joanna’s voice is lovely here, and it not hard to picture her performing this in an intimate jazz club. Once again, her ability to get in the moment with her improvisational style is quite noteworthy!
Joanna Connor and her band did a marvelous job with Six String Stories, and it is well recorded with good songs and copious guitar wizardry. This is good news, and there is even better news for you folks who do not live in the Chicago area: Joanna’s daughter is off to school now and Connor will be hitting the road again, so be sure to head over to www.joannaconnor.com to check out her gig schedule, which now includes US and European dates. But don’t fret, you will still have a good chance of seeing her show at Kingston Mines if you do happen to be in town!