Blues Singer's Ace Guitar Speaks the Loudest

Polite society always had it in for blues mamas, who by definition were forsaking a traditional woman's role for the lure of the stage lights. Maybe that's why there aren't many of them around.

To hear Joanna Connor sing in "Free Free Woman," a song of self-affirmation from "Slidetime," some segments of blues society evidently frown upon a blues mama who strays into more traditional roles and becomes a mama to a couple of kids:

And I lead my own life

I'm a mother, I'm a wife

It's not traditional

Viewed as criminal

Wanting more than the stage lights

With mom etched alongside singer, guitarist and songwriter on her resume, you could describe Connor, 35, as a quadruple threat. Hailing from Worcester, Mass., she paid her initial dues on the New England blues scene during the early 1980s, made an impression among the Chicago blues establishment when she moved there in 1985, landed a touring gig behind saxophonist and band leader A.C. Reed, went solo in 1989 and has now released her fourth album.

Guitarist is the item on her musical resume that should be underlined twice. With or without the trademark slide that gives the album its name, Connor's playing bristles with fluent energy and a full-bodied, biting tone.

While the album includes such traditional modes as slow Chicago blues and a Delta-style acoustic number reminiscent of early Bonnie Raitt, Connor takes flights beyond standard styles.

"You Don't Love Me," the best track, has the simmering pop-blues tension of Robert Cray, and Connor and her solid band can veer (albeit briefly) into fusiony, fast-moving instrumental passages akin to the Allman Brothers Band.

As a singer, Connor is credible but not special. Her voice has decent presence and gets that drawling blues thang going, but she lacks the distinctive hues, power reserves and inventive phrasing to make her a first-rank vocalist.

The songwriting on "Slidetime"--all of it by Connor, except for an assist from a band member on the dreadful "It's Not the Rock"--is spotty. A few tracks drone with monotonous melodies, but "You Don't Love Me" and "Free Free Woman" have riffs that stick.


Connor can be formulaic with her lyrics. "Nothin' but the Blues" and "At the Club" recycle standard ain't-the-blues-funky-but-grand sentiments.

But she also draws on personal experience in "Free Free Woman," "My Man" and "My Papa." These songs touch on the complexities of close relationships, although her storytelling ability isn't sufficiently developed to make them memorable portraits.

And, yes, Connor can fill that old, reprobate blues-mama role quite nicely, serving up unvarnished libido in "Got to Have You" and "Slide On In," wherein a double-entendre lyric about playing guitar is actually pretty single-minded about something else.

If the blues is supposed to reflect everyday life, Connor, with her up-and-down struggle to juggle multiple musical roles, certainly is emblematic of overextended folks everywhere trying to keep up the modern pace. "Slidetime" shines when it's time for the middling-quality singer-songwriter to step back, and for the ace guitarist to take over.

* Joanna Connor plays tonight at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach. 9:30 p.m. $8. (562) 983-7111.

Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.

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