I count myself fortunate that, on a whim back in 2009, I bought an album called White Sugar by the then relatively unknown Joanne Shaw Taylor…to say my flabber was gasted is a major understatement. It was an album of sheer brilliance both vocally and instrumentally and I’ve been in love ever since! Of course, she is much better known now and respected throughout the industry. Her five subsequent studio albums: Diamonds in the Dirt, Almost Always Never, The Dirty Truth, Wild and Reckless Heart plus the live Songs From the Road album cemented, quite rightly, that reputation. They are all exceedingly good but it is White Sugar I turn to mostly… the ecstasy of the titular instrumental and the heart-melting vocal of Kiss the Ground Goodbye, as well as all of the other tracks, meant a place is always reserved in my heart and ears for Joanne.
The chances are very high therefore that her new release, The Blues Album, will be welcomed wholeheartedly to sit alongside all of the others.
This new one is a set of cover versions; now, when most artists do a covers album, they tend toward the recognised artists and tracks…not so our Joanne, she has selected (with some suggestions from Joe and his co-producer and guitarist Josh) some of the lesser-known, often more inspiring and not necessary pure blues. For example, the first track is by the imperious Peter Green: a song that was a b-side and lead-off track on Fleetwood Mac’s Mr Wonderful…not one of the obvious hits most would select. Even covering Mr Green is fraught: to be able to capture his inherent feel and emotive playing is something only a few achieve (Gary Moore and Bernie Marsden on their Peter Green tribute albums did) and Joanne most definitely does.
Stop Messin’ Around follows the pattern, the pace and the exuberance of the original and the vocals fit perfectly. The guitar playing is interpretative but spot-on and Reece’s piano solo is a nice lift too. If That Ain’t A Reason is from Little Milton; it was a powerful, soulful song on the Stax label and, in JST’s hands (and some quality production standards on the brass and backing vocals) it again keeps the essence and somehow adds a depth the original lacked…and then there’s a stunning guitar solo…that’s pure guitar: no effects, no pedals no post-production ‘tarting up’…just genius. She also manages to keep the playful feel of the lyrics that Little Milton achieved.
Keep On Lovin’ Me was originally an Otis Rush song, updated many times since, although I hear Magic Sam in this interpretation. The bass line on this is fabulous, as is the vocal as the original was never guitar-driven…however, the solo she effortlessly rolls into the middle is so clever. It plays with the lyrical melodies and the chord work and runs are sheer bliss, and the second, subtle solo to the fade is just as good….except it faded!
If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, written by Rudy Clark, is another oft-covered number; my favourite has to be The Artwoods or possibly Vanilla Fudge’s version…until now. JST puts her sheen on, I think, the Aretha Franklin version…so we get horns, but with bass, keys and drums that know how to put passion into the backline as Joanne smokes the vocals admirably and then delivers a structured, paced and delicious solo that makes this track hers forever. Don’t Go Away Mad surfaced in 1992 when Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, Jim Keltner and John Hiatt (who had worked together on Hiatt’s album, Bring The Family) got together again as a sort of supergroup and released one, self-titled, album and, being bald as a coot, the track Solar Sex Panel was always a favourite!
The JST selected track wasn’t a blues song, it was more of a ridiculously catchy pop/rock blend but way more complex in its bouncy instrumentation and the trademark Cooder slide. Joe Bonamassa lends a hand on vocals and guitar as they turn it into a well-worked duet: they keep the bounce and rhythmic pulse and have fun…the slide is replaced by two lovely solos from the pair…they need to make a full album of co-write/covers now!
Scraps Vignette seems to be an instrumental that worked so well JST decided to include it here: not a cover as such, but a distillation of all that is good in the blues performed magnificently. Great drum shuffles, bass and keys bring in some stinging guitar from that Telecaster but there is a huge fault here… it is only 88 seconds long and cries out for an extension and further development.
Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me is by the great Albert King: here we get such a sensitive reading that pays due deference to Albert but shows how adaptable, skilled and talented Joanne is. The bass is genius, the vocals work so well, the brass adds depth and the solo? Ah, bliss! there’s two of them, both a brilliant blend of Joanne’s distinct touch with Albert’s phrasing informing each note, bend and chord. Let Me Down Easy, written by Maurice Dollinson and recorded by Little Milton, is just the right slow picked guitar and passionate vocal the song demands. Then she plays a solo that will send shivers down the spine as every note wrung from the strings shares the passion of the vocals…it fades much too soon, however. Two Time My Lovin’ from the pen of Kim Wilson, the vocalist and formidable harp player of the Fabulous Thunderbirds is rhythm and blues par excellence: this is how to bring the sixties up to date while preserving the feel of the original. Listen to the glistening chord work behind the verses and the subtle bass, drums and Hammond. Yet again, Joanne slots in a couple of superb bluesy solos (too short) seamlessly into a song that wouldn’t normally have one.
I Don’t Know What You’ve Got is the first of two songs by Don Covay to close this superb album. Covay only really came to my attention in 1993, when Ronnie Wood, Iggy Pop and Todd Rundgren collaborated on a tribute album, Back to the Streets: Celebrating the Music of Don Covay. Then I discovered he’d written songs for Etta James and Otis Redding (and Chain of Fools, made famous by Aretha Franklin.) Joanne chose the first of his songs via Little Richards performance of this intricate song and has Mike Farris guesting too. Mike was in SRV’s Double Trouble for a while but I know him best from his Silver and Stone solo album that also featured a certain Mr Bonamassa and Mr Wynans. Anyway, this is a ballad of the highest order and Reese Wynans revisits his time with Little Richard brilliantly. A suitably subtle guitar solo runs inventively across the fretboard making it seem perfectly at home.
Three Time Loser is the second Covay (with Ronald Miller) first released by Wilson Pickett and covered by the gorgeous Bonnie Raitt so well. JST has a ball in front of the rhythmic backing and genius piano and delivers another great vocal and makes the standard structure new and shiny…and, guess what? The solos are brilliant (too short) combinations of chords, picks and bends, complemented by a lovely piano solo that matches the invention.
The musicianship throughout The Blues Album is second to none and the guitar is beautifully soft/stinging/harsh/subtle as dictated by the song’s essence and played imaginatively and impeccably. To my ancients ears it sounds as though Joanne has reverted to her Esquire, as on the cover, (or her Albert King) Telecaster…a good move in my humble, as the Les Paul I’ve seen her use live is ‘too warm’ to my mind, whereas the Telecasters have a bite when needed and suit her style perfectly.
This is a truly wonderful, crafted and meaningful album of covers: the character of each one is preserved whilst they all sound fresh and vibrant. The band and production are also spot on, showcasing the abilities of this lovely musician perfectly. So, to answer my own question from earlier: yes, it will sit very happily with my JST collection and will get a regular listening session, along with White Sugar and the rest.
Bluesdoodles rating: 5 Doodle Paws – a Stupendous album that may be covers, but one that also illustrates how perfect a musician Joanne is and how she continues to grow and brings the blues bang up to date by using her smoky vocals and stunning techniques to brilliant effect.
Stop Messin’ Around
If That Ain’t A Reason
Keep On Lovin’ Me
If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody
Don’t Go Away Mad
Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me
Let Me Down Easy
Two Time My Lovin’
I Don’t Know What You’ve Got
Three Time Loser
Joanne Shaw Taylor: guitar, vocals
Josh Smith: guitar
Reese Wynans: keyboards
Greg Morrow: drums
Steve Mackey: bass
Steve Patrick: trumpet
Mark Douthit: saxophone
Barry Green: trombone
(Apologies to the backing singers: no details were available but rest assured you sounded great.)
Joe Bonamassa: guitar, vocals on Don’t Go Away Mad.
Mike Farris: guitar on I Don’t Know What You’ve Got.
Produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith.
Recorded at Oceanway Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee
Released on Bonamassa’s independent label KTBA (Keeping The Blues Alive) Records on September 24th, 2021.
(iTunes inevitably has all of Joannes albums so I indulged and then let it move onto the contrasting sounds of a great British heavy rock band that somehow never made it. Indeed their only album was originally only released in Germany, New Zealand and the US! Check out Jodo for heavy blues-based quality rock from 1971.)