Album reviews: Guitar-driven blueswomen Sue Foley, Carolyn Wonderland, Joanne Shaw Taylor hold nothing back

From left, Sue Foley, Carolyn Wonderland and Joanne Shaw Taylor each have released outstanding new albums. Credits: Danny Clinch, Marilyn Stringer, Christie Goodwin

Ladies’ choice. Three completely divergent, guitar-driven blues women deliver landmark albums packed with no-holds-barred passion.

Sue Foley
‘Pinky’s Blues’
Label: Stony Plain Records
Release:
Oct. 22, 2021

Rather than climb the walls, Sue Foley opted to shake the plaster from them.

Foley and her friends hammered out “Pinky’s Blues” in three days of raw lockdown liberation. The way it’s supposed to be done. A good thing, resulting from some serious, world-wide blues.

B3 master Mike “The Drifter” Flanigin produced the sessions and plays on two of the tracks. Otherwise, Foley goes toe to toe with drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble fame, and bassist Jon Penner, who appeared on Foley’s earliest albums when the Ottawa, Ontario, guitarist and singer first took her blues to Austin, Texas.

The album — It’s title a reference to Foley’s candy-pink Telecaster — features the type of bone-cutting and soul-swampy Texas-Louisiana guitar blues that the Fabulous Thunderbirds and others kicked up a storm with decades ago. The kind they got from guys like Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo and T-Bone Walker. In fact, on Foley’s own, proud, Lester-like “Hurricane Girl,” founding Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan adds his distinctive, flexible twang on rhythm guitar, perfectly bolstering Foley’s similar, piercing tone on lead.

But Foley also can sing a lilting torch blues with plenty of sugar in her alto, as she does here on Lillie Mae Donley’s “Think it Over,” which features Flanigin in velvety-smooth accompaniment. But the lady sure does like to rock and roll. “Dallas Man” barrels forward, Foley tipping her hat to the plethora of Dallas-area guitar greats from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Frankie Lee Sims (who she covers here on his “Boogie Real Low”), to Zuzu Bollin, and to Vaughan and his younger brother, Stevie Ray. Count Foley among such luminaries; she constantly proves herself here with to-the-point perfection. Her fluid, dexterous string-dusting on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp” makes the experience of listening to such a wonderful old warhorse, attractive again.

Sue Foley released “The Ice Queen” in 2018, and garnered several awards and high-profile gigs from it. There’s nothing chilly about “Pinky’s Blues,” a sweltering, straight-up blues album that will certainly help Foley continue her righteous roll.

Carolyn Wonderland
‘Tempting Fate’
Label: Alligator Records
Release:
Oct. 8, 2021

Carolyn Wonderland’s song “Fragile Peace and Certain War” has the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and dusty cowboy country all balled up tightly and ignited with a strike of the strings. The ensuing impacts are undeniable, their intensity arousing sadness, fear and anger at how we’re all “Tempting Fate” these days.

But in the end, the amazement at Wonderland’s keen songwriting, teeth-splintering guitar playing, and commanding singing, is what lingers like tendrils of addictive smoke. As produced by roots music king Dave Alvin, there’s real deal feel all the way through “Tempting Fate,” the Texas native’s 11th album.

Non-Texans, and even those new to this type of music, should get a kick out of the way Wonderland immediately lightens the air with “Texas Girl and Her Boots.” Vivid images flicker by, of a lady’s closet with racks of multi-colored, distressed to shiny ropers for two-steppin’ on a Saturday night, to sloshin’ in the mud. The galloping twang suits the ode like the spurs on a pair for riding.

The roughened “Broken Hearted Blues” then displays the true blues woman inside this lady. She’s pissed and makes no bones about it, but her melodic fretwork lightens the load.

A glittering Tex-Mex take on the late, legendary Billy Joe Shaver’s “Honey Bee” raises the mood again, and may be the only song chosen or written that eschews social and political ills.

Otherwise, from the sweet country wistfulness of “Crack in the Wall” through to her bluesy duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Carolyn Wonderland’s thoughts on today’s state of affairs are crystal clear. Top-flight players and Alvin’s production make everything glow.

Carolyn Wonderland speaks to the masses and kicks a whole lot of asses here. “Tempting Fate” should launch her star.

Joanne Shaw Taylor
‘The Blues Album’
Label: KTBA Records
Release: Sept. 17, 2021

Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics helped jumpstart the career of a 16-year-old Joanne Shaw Taylor 20 years ago now, the guitarist/singer’s gifts obvious to a fellow Brit with ears as wide open as his. Taylor’s scaled a long way up the British blues-rock mountain since then, and “The Blues Album,” her seventh from the studio, arrives as a feast of heavy-duty admiration for the American art form that spans oceans and generations.

As produced by longtime friend Joe Bonamassa, Taylor’s ever-deepening wellspring of know-how boils over throughout a unique collection of songs by Peter Green, Little Milton, Otis Rush, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, and even John Hiatt’s Little Village collective, among others. Although disparate at their core, the songs all snap and crackle one after the other naturally, like thunder following lightning. Each one focuses on Taylor as an incredibly expressive soul singer just as much as on the fiery, nimble-fingered guitarist she made her name as. Taylor resembles Beth Hart in timbre, but her vocal muscle flexes in a more rounded, less acidic way.

The entertainment begins with the electric jolt of Green’s “Stop Messin’ Around,” a rollicking Fleetwood Mac tune from 1968 that Taylor and company play faithfully, and with pronounced oomph. Recording a slate of blues-rock covers can be a risky affair. Taylor and the handpicked band of Bonamassa associates — including Reese Wynans on keyboards — succeed wildly, offering thrust accentuated with thoughtful nuances and robust flavor.

Taylor plays her guitar brilliantly. Check the way she strangles her strings into soul-stirring melody during Little Milton’s “If That Ain’t a Reason.” Or, how she mimics Albert King on his “Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me” with nothing but the most honest affection and tribute in her biting notes and Stax-like rendering. But there she is too, playing the soul chanteuse in a vocal duet with Bonamassa on the Little Village number, “Don’t Go Away Mad.” Together, they transform it from a quirky R&B foray into the straight, no chaser soul classic that was always hiding under its surface.

“The Blues Album” will ensure that there’ll be no hiding for Joann Shaw Taylor.        

Great things come in threes.

Tom Clarke

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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