Evolution, blues purists believe, is for the birds. What the creators of modern blues should do, they'll tell you, is leave well enough alone. Forget about the marching hands of time. Forget about new branches of music. Forget about artistic individuality.
At least that's what blues-rock guitarist Joanna Connor hears them saying, and she thinks they're full of it. "The blues purists have come along and formularized the music," she complains. "They've tried to pigeonhole it. It's a big mistake. Nowadays you hear a lot of bands that either sound like the Fabulous Thunderbirds or Stevie Ray Vaughan, and everyone's copying that. That's the wrong way to go, because blues always used to be about individual life experiences.
"If I add rock to my blues," she continues, "it's because I grew up in the late half of the Twentieth Century, and I grew up listening to rock and roll and soul. I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't put that in my music. Some people say, 'Oh, you're destroying the art form,' but I think there are too many intellectuals -- pseudointellectuals -- running the blues scene, trying to determine what is and isn't blues. And I think that's a bunch of crap."
Apparently Connor, as feisty an interview subject as she is a lead guitarist, thinks it's time someone fired up the Roto-Rooter and flushed all that B.S. down the drain. "They're trying to stifle the evolution of the music, to keep it as a museum piece," she says. "You can't do that. Look at jazz and how it's evolved into so many different styles. You've got to let music grow and let people take it wherever they'll take it. Maybe it won't ever be as great as what Muddy Waters did, but we have to express ourselves the way we feel now."
Obviously self-expression is not a problem for Connor. Never was. She has six albums to her credit, and has spent the past ten years, since the age of 24, fronting her own crack blues-rock band. Connor played 175 dates last year and tours regularly throughout North America and Europe. She is one of only a handful of women -- along with Bonnie Raitt, Debbie Davies, Sue Foley, Rory Block, and Deborah Coleman -- to tackle serious blues lead-guitar playing, and she is easily the most ferocious of the bunch.
That has everything to do with her upbringing. Raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Connor benefited from an early introduction to music courtesy of her mother. When Joanna was around seven years old, Mrs. Connor started taking her to see blues stars such as Raitt, Taj Mahal, and Son Seals, dragging her to numerous Newport Jazz Festivals, and encouraging her to listen to superstar rock bands of the day, foremost among them Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
Though Joanna started toying with the guitar right around the time she caught her first glimpse of slide guitar guru Raitt, the saxophone attracted her more. She practiced long and hard and didn't permanently set aside brass for strings until her twenties, primarily because she couldn't sing with a reed in her mouth. Somewhere along the line she fell in love with the blues, packed her bags, and moved to Chicago. "I left at 21 because the blues artists in Boston were very much into being traditional and were what I call derivative players. They weren't breaking any new ground. Everybody had pompadours and tattoos, and they were all stuck on that whole Thunderbirds thing."
Connor, however, had always preferred the high-energy, guitar-heavy, R&B slant of Chicago blues. Upon her arrival she began to tear up the local blues bars, quickly landing a gig in the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge. The small, rough-and-tumble club, owned at the time by blues master Buddy Guy, was (and still is) a South Side institution. As part of the Checkerboard's 43rd Street Blues Band, Connor frequently backed Guy and his many friends, including Junior Wells and Little Milton. Later she spent three years laying down chunky grooves behind local and visiting legends across town at the blues hotspot Kingston Mines. Connor then toured with blues saxman A.C. Reed before finally deciding, as the Nineties approached, to start her own band.
Four releases on the San Francisco blues label Blind Pig (she also cut two discs for European labels during extended stays on the continent) are testament to Connor's confident, convincing musicianship; she gives a particularly strong showing on slide guitar. On her latest, the aptly titled Slidetime, she evokes the Southern-drenched spirit of Duane Allman ("Nothin' but the Blues"), pulls out some thick and meaty riffs reminiscent of Buddy Guy ("At the Club"), and even ventures into exotic melodies a la Ritchie Blackmore ("Slide On In"), with a flurry of trills and tremolo. All in all, it is a showcase for her instrumental expertise, which crosses from blues to rock and back again. And that stylistic freedom suits Connor -- an opinionated agitator for less corporate manipulation of artistic vision -- just fine.
"I really feel that if you play music people can have a good time with, they'll buy anything. But when it's determined that you have to look this way and sound that way, it's just a bunch of crap. That's why music, right now, for everybody, is kind of limiting. There are a lot of great musicians out there that aren't being heard because the record companies don't think they meet the criteria.
"It's all up to the people who are in charge, who think they can determine what people like," she continues. "But I think people in America aren't given enough credit. I've played festivals where it's free, so everybody in the town will be there, and if you hit them with honesty, emotion, feeling, and intensity, all people will like all music, pretty much. They just have to hear it. It's really up to the industry, and they'll probably determine that most blues artists aren't marketable because they aren't young and cute and blond."
Or male. Connor takes gender discrimination in music, particularly against women guitarists, very seriously. Even when that discrimination is self-imposed. "I think attitudes are going to change in the next ten years. They are already changing. I think it's the mindset women have had for a long time that it's not a ladylike thing to play an aggressive electric instrument. And you have to be pretty aggressive and get down with it and be dedicated. You're gonna get calluses and you can't have long nails -- I hate to sound like that -- but there are a lot of women who aren't programmed, by society or even by their parents, to accept that. And today there's a subtle thing happening, even among the most liberal people, about what women should and shouldn't do."
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None of that has stopped Connor, though, even when she's had to confront blatantly outdated thinking. After more than a decade as a touring, recording artist, and a highly advanced guitarist, it seems she would be beyond most instances of discrimination. Ironically, her pregnancy last year (she now has three children, all happily raised on the road) almost prevented her from recording Slidetime at all.
"I almost had to go to court to do this record," she says, explaining that her record label's initial reluctance to allow its pregnant star to work is just another example of how women are held back in music, if not virtually everywhere in society. "We're the last group of people to be freed from oppression, in my mind. I was pregnant during my last tour, and I did an album, but I met with a lot of resistance over that. People still have a lot of ideas in their head about how a woman should look, how she should behave. We still use women to sell everything. We need to make a whole cultural turnaround for things to change, and I don't know when that will occur.
"And I know it sounds crazy that all of that would influence people playing guitar, but it does. Just things like the WNBA -- that's a step in the right direction. And I think that music, sports -- all those things that are traditionally male fields -- have to change. It all goes hand in hand. It's a cultural thing and a sociological thing. And I don't blame women for not doing it. You have to have a real rebellious spirit; you have to have a lot of perseverance. But I really think that it's going to happen because I'm meeting more and more women that play, and it's getting more and more acceptable."
Joanna Connor plays Friday, July 31, at 9:30 p.m. at the Backroom, 16 E Atlantic Blvd, Delray Beach; 561-243-9110. Tickets are $5. She also plays Saturday, August 1, at 10:45 p.m. at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 305-374-1198. Tickets are $5.