Worcester native Joanna Connor, a longtime Chicago Blues star, performs at the Fallout Shelter in Norwood last night.
LIVE SHOW REVIEW
Joanna Connor became an institution in Chicago after moving there from Worcester in the ’80s, earning enough cred to be a featured performer at Kingston Mines, a club that last year celebrated a half century in the heart of the blues scene. Slowly but surely, word of her immense talent radiated from the city’s famed Halsted Street, leading to the kind under-the-radar festival appearances that make unsuspecting listeners suddenly stand in gape-jawed awe.
This has been the story of Joanna Connor. Her sustaining success in Chicago has allowed her to avoid a career of grinding it out in barrooms on the road. And so it goes — a disbelieving fan shoots video at a festival, uploads it on YouTube, and suddenly the incendiary, transcendent guitar performance racks up more than a million views, and comments like “seriously one of the coolest solos ever heard.” … “This chick is Badass” … “This is why I love YouTube. I would never get the chance to hear this absolute genius.”
Last night in the Extended Play Sessions at the Fallout Shelter in Norwood her home-state fans got a chance to hear that “absolute genius.” Connor turned the state-of-the-art video theater and speakeasy into the same kind of gritty, electric and hopping blues clubs you will find in Chicago. My friends at the Fallout Shelter host hundreds of talented touring musicians, but seldom have I seen everyone — crew included — bobbing their heads in unison, pumping their fists and hollering with glee the way they were last night.
The blues genre boasts many female guitarists with laudatory skills. Few play with the searing and lightning-fast precision Connor displays. That’s one of the reasons her YouTube sensations are met with such awe. She is often motioned as one of the best female blues guitarists in the business. It’s time she is considered as one of the best guitarists period.
As no less an authority than Fallout Shelter founder Bill Hurley noted in the post-show interview, “We’ve heard ‘Little Wing’ covered here many times, but that was by far the best ever!”
Connor smiles and shrugs that off with the same humility she shows when on stage. While her fiercest shredding often leads to the standard “guitar solo face” with teeth-gritting intensity, she is just as likely to look up at the crowd humorously with a “did-I-just-make-that-sound?” face. Yes, Joanna, you did!
In the Fallout Shelter interview, Connor offered a similarly modest take on how she learned to perform “the coolest solos ever heard.” “When I was 6 six years old, I asked for a guitar,” Connor said of her most fateful childhood wish. “I got one and I never put it down.”
Connor and her superb band — Jay “Red Bass” on bass; Delby Littlejohn, the former Junior Walker All-Star, on keys; and Jason “Jroc” Edwards on drums — have incredible chemistry and telepathy on stage. They consider themselves a family and united force (“When Joanna breathes, I breathe,” bassist Jay said with a laugh). That was on full display last night in the two sets played before the cameras — the second including a guest spot by Tyler Morris, the young slinger from Newton whom Connor first befriended and called on stage five years ago.
Connor & Co. are touring behind her first new album in three years, “Rise,” and last night, in addition to the guitar shredding blues of her trademark style, she debuted songs from the all-original album due on Nov. 8. The album turns some of the focus away from the fiery guitar solos that make her a viral sensation to expand on her musicianship — and, she hopes — her audience.
Last night, with the live “Extended Play Sessions” stream and the rapt studio audience, that expansion got started the way an earthquake begins with a small rumble. The Massachusetts audience — some hearing her for the first time, others welcoming her return after a long local absence, were glad to hear Connor vow to be back more often. They were even happier when Hurley remarked, “Let’s get that on the books right now! We’d love to have you back whenever you come this way.”
For Connor, that would be the perfect home at home away from home.