When Joanna Connor sent out a tweet following some ‘performance videos’, she did not expect to hear back from Joe Bonamassa, and even less to hear him say: “You should be a household name; I’d like to talk with you about making a record...”
In fact the blues prodigy had actually opened for Connor at Chicago’s House of Blues years ago when he was a boy, and he now felt he could help realize her potential. “Listen, I have a vision for you, I want to make a Joanna Connor record that I want to hear,” he said. “I want to take what you do best, like lightning in a bottle, and I want that in every performance. And I want your vocals to be as strong as your guitar playing.”
Bonamassa kept his word and the result is the wonderfully contemporary 4801 South Indiana Avenue (26 February 2021; released on Bonamassa’s independent record label, Keeping The Blues Alive).
The album title comes from the actual street address of the atmospheric blues club ‘Theresa’s Tavern’, where Buddy Guy and Junior Wells played. Recorded at Ocean Way Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and produced by Bonamassa and Josh Smith, the album seeks to get “the listener to open that door, walk in and feel to their core some of the magic that a place like that brought night after night.” In achieving this, Connor was backed by Reese Wynans (who played keyboards for Stevie Ray Vaughan), Lemar Carter (who has drummed for Mick Jagger), and Calvin Turner (who has played bass for John Mayer). But without a doubt the heart of the whole show is Connor, with her Les Paul 1960s reissue, her powerful vocal range, and her desire to set fire to a range of lesser-known blues songs.
All of the tracks on this album have something special but first I would like to highlight Connor’s take on Bad News. This track was an early composition by Luther Allison, who played with Howlin’ Wolf, and who Connor had toured with a few years before his premature death in 1997. Allison’s soulful original is extraordinary, but Connor’s gritty slow blues take on it, with its tolling bell, slide guitar and gut-wrenching vocal, is just unforgettable. Don’t miss it.
The album’s opening track however is Destination, which sets the scene by making you feel like you’ve been thrown into the midst of a raging party. This is the kind of hard-hitting riotous sound that Bonamassa was aiming for when he first wrote to Connor, and it suits both her ‘in your face’ guitar style and her rich and bold vocals. In short, it spells FUN.
The single release is the breathless boogie-driven I Feel So Good, which showcases Connor’s chops on guitar and powerful lead vocal. It also features a rip-roaring guitar ending that is just one of several great ‘surprise outros’ on this album.
The album closes with It’s My Time, which reinforces just how diverse this blues album is. Beginning with a chugging rhythm, followed by Connor’s sultry spoken-word lyric, it almost sounds like something that Tricky or Massive Attack might have come up with; although Connor herself cites Robbie Robertson’s Somewhere Down the Crazy River. Near the two minute mark Connor says ‘Let me show you why’ before cutting into a seriously heavy and emotional slide battle with Bonamassa. In case you had any doubt about this album’s party vibe, it then starts to fade out to the sound of people chatting around you. Wonderful.
4801 South Indiana Avenue has been called a career-defining record for Connor and a strong candidate for best blues record of the year. Two artists have come together to create a piece of magic, as Connor explains: “I worked with a couple of good producers before and Joe has the technical know-how. He had the vision. He painted a scenario as to how he wanted me to approach the songs.” In sum, if you like the blues, this is a ‘can’t miss’.