Live Concert Photography: Joanna Connor and Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperial at Kingston Mines 4/14/18
Now, if you’ve followed me through my various social media outlets or through this site, you may recall that back in April, I was in Chicago to attend a major conference related to my day job, and I showed up a few days before before the conference to see a number of friends and associates and to catch as much live music as I could in one of the country’s great music cities. Of course, while in Chicago, I had to catch the blues, and thanks to the recommendation of Diversion Records‘ Scott Simon, I stopped at Kingston Mines on Blues Alley to catch Joanna Connor and Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials.
Joanna Connor is a Brooklyn-born, Worcester, MA-raised, Chicago, IL-based singer/songwriter and guitarist, who has publicly cited her mom (who I met) and her mom’s record collection as being a major influence on her life an music. “She listed to blues, folk and rock as much as she could,” Connor recalls on her website. “So I heard Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal when I was kid, and got into the more obscure artists as I went on. And I saw all the Chicago bands, who came through town.” By the time, she was in her mid-teens, Connor was playing the Worcester and Boston club scene with her own band before relocating to Chicago in 1984.
Upon her arrival to Chicago, Connor was mentored by a number of blues legends, sitting in with James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. After a stint in Dion Payton‘s band, Connor went solo with her own band, releasing her full-length debut, 1989’s Believe It, which began a string of critically applauded albums released through Blind Pig Records. Connor left Blind Pig and signed with indie label M.C. Records, who released 2002’s The Joanna Connor Band, an album that found Connor displaying the full extent of her influences with the rocker “Different Kind of War,” and a funky cover of “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” But just as the buzz and accolades were growing around her, Connor began a touring hiatus. “There were several factors: 9/11 had just gone down, the economy was changing and clubs were closing. But most of all, my daughter was pretty young at the time. She wound deciding she wanted to become a big-time basketball player, so that required dedication on both of our parts,” the Chicago-based singer/songwriter and guitarist explains on her website. So far that dream has come true as Connor’s daughter was awarded a basketball scholarship at Indiana State University, while her sound is busily pursuing her own musical career.
Interestingly, although Connor couldn’t get out to audiences, she discovered that audiences were just coming out to see her play at Kingston Mines, where she began playing back in the 80s and still plays three nights most weekends, between gigs at larger clubs and festivals. “It’s become kind of an institution: You go to Chicago, you go to Wrigley Field and then you go see Joanna Connor,” the Chicago-based singer/songwriter and guitarist says. “The schedule is kind of brutal, but it’s great—Usually a packed house, with lots of adrenaling pumping. When it gets to be around midnight, the audience starts getting younger. And I love that—My son is 29, and he gets people looking at him and saying, ‘That’s your mom’?” (And by brutal, we’re talking about playing from 7:00pm to 5:00am Fridays and Saturdays and until 4:00am on Sundays.)
The crowds increased after a video featuring a live version of “Walkin’ Blues” was posted by a Massachusetts-based fan on YouTube. “It was just a phenomenal thing that happened. I was getting calls from America’s Got Talent and movie people reaching out; I even had a Russian billionaire fly me to Spain to play a birthday party. I think people loved the combination: Here’s a woman who looks like somebody’s mom, and she’s playing like this. What I remember most was that it was 90 degrees that day, so I was wearing the coolest dress I had.” Unsurprisingly, the video went viral, receiving millions of views, as it was re-posted in Japan, Russia and across the European Union.
Her latest album, Six String Stories is her first album in over a decade. The album comes from the result of several years of wood-shedding and according to Connor, it may be the most accomplished album she’s released to date, while marking the first time in her career that she’s collaborated with one musician, her longtime drummer, now bassist, who contributes both to the album. “This was the first time I ever collaborated with one musician to such a degree. I’ve always been a live musician and going into the studio used to be a daunting, scary thing. But you know what, the older I get the more comfortable I am with myself. I don’t listen to the outside voices in my head, I just go with it.” Interestingly, the album finds Connor subtly modernizing her sound and approach but while also finding herself much more self-assured and confident.
Live, Connor is a towering and forceful presence, who is a must-see if you’re ever in town. Of course, the night included another local stalwart, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials. Check out photos from the night below.
Currently comprised of Chicago-born and-based half-brothers and co-founders Lil’ Ed Williams (guitar, vocals) and James “Pookie” Young (bass), along with Michael Garrett (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Kelly Littleton (drums), Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperial can trace its origins to when its founding members started the band back in 1975 with the tutelage and encourage of Williams’ uncle, the blues guitarist and songwriter J.B. Hutto.
About a decade later, Alligator Records invited the band to record a track “Young Thing” for 1987’s blues compilation album, New Bluebloods. Label head and producer Bruce Iglauer encouraged the band to record additional material, which resulted in their full-length debut, 1986’s Roughhousin’. The band made the rounds at the festival circuit and toured relentlessly to support the album. The band released two more albums, 1989’s Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits and 1992’s What You See Is What You Get before breaking up that year.
Williams went on to record two solo albums, 1996’s Keep On Walking, which featured Dave Weld, a former Blues Imperial and 1998’s Who’s Been Talking, which featured Willie Kent. The Blues Imperials reunited and released 1999’s Get Wild and since then the band has released five more albums — 2002’s Heads Up, 2006’s Rattlesnake, 2008’s Full Tilt, 2012’s Jump Start, and 2016’s The Big Sound of Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, an album that’s been critically praised for their urgent take on the boogie blues.
Adding to a growing reputation within the blues scene, the band has made multiple appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival, as well as festivals and clubs around the world. They’ve also been nominated for eight Blues Music Awards as Band of the Year, winning the award twice. I caught a bit of the band’s set before heading back to my hotel, as I had an early morning meeting the next day; but I was impressed by their muscular approach and Williams’ mischievous sense of humor and double-entendres.