Joanna Connor is a Brooklyn-born, Worcester, MA-raised, Chicago, IL-based singer/songwriter and guitarist, who has publicly cited her mom (who I’ve actually met) and her mom’s record collection as being a major influence on her life and 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’s 2002 effort The Joanna Connor Band found Connor displaying the full extent of her influences as it featured “Different Kind of War” and a funky cover of “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” But just as the buzz and accolades were growing, 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 up deciding that 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. That dream has come true: Connor’s daughter was awarded a basketball scholarship at Indiana State University, and Connor has pursued her career with a renewed fervor.
Although Connor wasn’t touring, she discovered that audiences were coming out to see her play renowned Chicago blues club Kingston Mines, where she began playing a weekly, three night residency 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’?” (The schedule is brutal indeed: 3 two hour sets between 7:00pm and 5:00am Fridays and Saturdays — and until 4:00am on Sundays. The nights typically begin with an acoustic blues set, followed by two electric sets, as the crowds get younger.)
The crowds increased even more 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.”
Connor’s 14th album, the Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith co-produced 4801 South Indiana Avenue was released last month through Joe Bonamassa’s new blues label Keeping The Blues Alive. Deriving its name from the actual address of hallowed, Chicago blues club Theresa’s Lounge, 4801 South Indiana Avenue was recored at 4801 South Indiana Avenue — and the album finds Connor, Bonamassa, Smith and an impressive array of players digging deeply to conjure an authentic, ass kicking and name taking, non-derivative set of that good ol’ fashioned Chicago blues. “We want 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. It was an honor to bring this to you, the listener,” Connor says in press notes. “This album is a homage to the blues school that I attended in Chicago,” Connor adds. “We attempted to capture the spirit of tradition and inject it with raw energy and passion.”
Earlier this year, I wrote about the boozy and breakneck boogie woogie “I Feel So Good,” which captures a self-assured woman, who kicks ass, takes names and honestly just wants to have a roaring good time — all while featuring Conor’s blistering guitar work and powerhouse vocals. 4801 South Indiana Avenue’s latest single is a lovingly straightforward, no-frills, no filler and no bullshit rendition of Luther Allison’s haunting wailing blues “Bad News Is Coming.” Much like the original, Connor’s version is full of lived-in, late night heartache and regret — and the recognition that life is often full of incredibly difficult and painful decisions that will change the course of your life and of those you’re involved with.
“This is a Luther Allison song, and we chose it because we were all huge fans of his,” Connor explains in press notes. “I toured with him in Europe for almost ten years as his opening act, so it was an honor to record this haunting piece. Joe came up with the bell idea to further capture the mood.”
Appropriately shot in a Chicago blues club, the video is split between footage of Connor wailing and playing those blues like a heartbroken banshee, brooding in the club’s green room about the decisions she has to made — or already have made. And of course, because it’s a late night blues, we see her packing her gear and leaving the club with an uncertain future ahead of her.