I always enjoy getting the opportunity to take in young performers playing the Blues. It does my heart good to know that there are up and coming musicians that will keep my favorite genre alive and well. I also enjoy the chance to take in a power trio. So with that combination, it was with great anticipation that I got to see Joanne Shaw Taylor perform last night at the House of Blues in Chicago. Joanne has been playing in front of an audience for 10 years, since she was sixteen. That experience was quite clear in her stage presence.
Playing on the small downstairs stage, known as The Back Porch Stage, I was looking forward to hearing Joanne play live for the first time. The night got off to a bit of a sluggish start, at least for me anyway. Positioning myself initially in the dining room area off to the left as you face the stage, the sound quality was poor, and the site lines were poorer. What stood out to me most while viewing from that vantage point was actually the drummer, Tony Dicello. Tony definitely has a little John Bonham in his soul, as I do not think I have ever seen a drummer pound them’ skins any harder this side of the legendary late Mr. Bonham. I liked his style. His solo during Goin’ Down was fantastic. Filling out the trio on bass guitar and support vocals was Joe Veloz. He filled his role just fine, assisting Tony in driving the rhythm train.
After two songs, I moved to center back, and the “ah-ha” factor kicked in immediately. Immensely improved sound, specifically from Joanne’s solid body Gold Top guitar, made the evening much more enjoyable going forward. Unfortunately, Joanne was fighting off a head cold, and that may have contributed to a bit of an uneven performance vocal wise. When in her comfort zone, she was solid singing her own songs. She definitely has the classic bluesy vocal sound component to compliment her style on guitar. However, she was not totally impressive when handling the vocals on covers such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” or the popular blues standard “Goin’ Down.” That said, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on those, as I believe she was facing some limitations due to the cold. That also may have explained a 45 minute set, followed by a 35 minute break, and then a relatively short 40 minute second set.
One thing being under the weather didn’t impede was her guitar playing. As a guitar player, she was very sound, solid and expressive, as well as technically perfect. As a blues guitar player, for me as a fan, I look for substance and style over speed. There are thousands of rock and metal guitar players that can play a million miles an hour, but don’t contain an ounce of soul in their playing. That was not the case with Joanne. While at times she showed an ability to play balls-out, extremely fast, other times she showed the ability to pull up, bend a few strings, and let the music flow from her body, through her guitar, as though it were an extension of her. Like a blood flowing appendage of her own self. To be honest, I would have liked to see more of the latter. But that’s just me. That aspect reminded me of 1970’s Carlos Santana, or one of her stated inspirations, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, in the way she channeled the music from inside her through her instrument. As a whole, her performance was very impressive.
From the British Midlands, UK, Ms. Taylor, 26 this year, covered songs from her most recent release Diamonds in the Dirt (2010), as well as her previous effort, White Sugar (2009). She does have a bright future in my mind, and it’s refreshing to see an independent performer Joanne’s age, playing what she wants, and what she believes in. I tend to categorize a new act in one of 3 ways. 1- What you see is what you’ll get, and that’s it. 2- There will be ongoing improvement and growth, or 3- The sky is the limit. I put Joanne Shaw Taylor somewhere between 2 and 3 at this point. I personally think she would be better served, from an exposure stand point in Chicago, playing an early evening slot at Chicago Blues Fest, or warming up for Joe Walsh at Naperville Fest., or Burton Cummings at the Arlington Ht’s festival stage this summer. Or maybe a night at an intimate club such as Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, or Martyrs on Lincoln. From a local stand point, she would gain considerably greater visibility, and the popularity that would no doubt accompany doing that in a city that loves its blues.
When I leave the show of a performer I have seen for the first time, the first question I ask myself is “Do I want to go see this person play again?” In the case of Joanne Shaw Taylor, the answer is a resounding “Yes”- many more times I hope.
Reviewed by Patrick Kinsella on 5/1/12