Joe Bonamassa says he saw Joanna Connor summon demons from her guitar when he watched a clip of her playing her guts out at a festival. Offering to produce this album, Bonamassa vowed to “Take the unknown out of her equation.” In other words, help spread the word about this exceptional blues lady with a four decades-long career that deserved a boost.
The boost turned into a rocket shot. “4801 South Indiana Avenue” has everything that makes raw, loud, guitar-driven blues music so dangerous and enthralling. Bonamassa and fellow guitarist Josh Smith — both of whom play throughout — co-produced and pushed Connor to deliver the album of her life. She did, and then some.
Connor belts these songs out with surprising, primal emotion, all the while sliding into 10-car pileups of sheet metal with her guitar. Ten momentous blues songs, some familiar, most not, and none run-of-the-mill, are taken to places they’ve never been before. A full complement of seasoned players gets them there.
Connor’s long been known for her slide guitar dexterity, and she shows why with devastating lines at the outset of “Destination,” a song written long ago by the four members of D.C.’s Assassins (essentially the pre-Nighthawks Nighthawks). The idea was to have Connor rip it up like the blues granddaddies did, as they expelled their angst at Teresa’s Lounge at the sub-sidewalk level of 4801 Indiana Avenue back in the 1950s and 60s heyday of Chicago blues. But “Destination” was certainly produced and played with mass appeal in mind as well, and it emits a little Texas heat too, by way of Reese Wynans’ rollicking piano style.
The hammering, paint-peeling take on Hound Dog Taylor’s “Come Back Home” (aka “Sadie”) offers some of that same feel, but gets closer to pure Chicago. A tolling of a bell announces Luther Allison’s “Bad News,” as if signaling a welcome to pure Chicago. Horn-enhanced and piano-brightened, the song nonetheless simmers with a nastiness that defines absolute gutbucket blues. Connor sings the song as if she just threw back a Mason jar full of ‘shine and glass shards, and scrapes the heavens with hellish guitar notes. For Magic Sam’s “I Feel So Good,” the band gets jumpy, calling to mind the freewheeling melodic passion of Australian slide guitar great Dave Hole. Lowell Fulson’s “Trouble, Trouble” swings breathlessly, and the new “Cut You Loose,” by Josh Smith, with its machine-like bass guitar opening, unfolds into a dragged-down, had-it, toss-you-to the-curb howler.
The grooves throughout this album are always changing, and are never less than throat-gripping. Connor knows exactly how to balance fluent guitar playing with forcefulness, and she never loses sight of the vibe. Although she refers to this as her first 100 percent blues album, there are certainly waves of 1990s modern rock moving through “It’s My Time,” the incredible, important song written by Josh Smith that ends the album. The song serves as a message to girls and women about never giving up. “Let me show you why,” she sings of her own talents that fuel her drive, before launching into a wicked-cool guitar solo.
I saw Connor play slide with a Heineken bottle up close and personal at a saloon in upstate New York 29 years ago. She’s never given up. This is her 14th album and she’s at her peak on it. And she still rips it up regularly at the blues clubs in Chicago.
- Joanna Connor
- ‘4801 South Indiana Avenue’
- Label: KTBA – Keeping The Blues Alive
- Release: Feb. 26, 2021