Review: Veteran Blues Rocker Joanna Connor Explores Her Soulful Side on ‘Best of Me’

Joanna Connor
Best of Me
(Gulf Coast Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s showtime, it’s our time, time to feel the groove…sings Joanna Connor on the opening horn-fueled blues rocker. And for the next forty minutes, she provides music that makes listeners do just that.

It’s something the Chicago-based blues woman has been doing as a solo artist for almost a quarter century and before that with a variety of high-profile players from her Windy City base. Along the way, she has become a triple threat artist; savvy songwriter, expressive singer, and of course roaring guitarist capable of shredding or laying back while tossing off sweet, subtle fills. Like most blues musicians, she was a road warrior, yet took about a decade sabbatical from the grind to raise two children while still performing locally.

She returned in 2016, releasing an album every few years that proved her abilities were as sharp, perhaps even sharper, than before. Joe Bonamassa took notice and released Connor’s 2021 tribute to her Chicago roots with 4801 South Indiana Avenue, a set of mostly obscure covers she turned inside out, assisted by a great band. It debuted atop the National Blues chart, solidifying her position as one of the finest, and most fiery, blues/roots artists on the contemporary scene.

She’s back, two years later, with a set predominately comprised of originals often composed in conjunction with Shawn Calloway, her band’s bassist. While there is enough fret-slashing to satisfy anyone but the most adamant Kenny Wayne Shepherd fan, Connor focuses on plowing into a deeper soul groove with her husky, emotional vocals. Typically that aspect has generally been pushed to the sidelines as she growled, shouted, and howled her rollicking blues rawk with the amps cranked to 11.

On the title track ballad, she shows her impressive vocal range mixing Susan Tedeschi’s grit and Bonnie Raitt’s smoother edge as the song soars. Her notoriously supple and sizzling slide work supports the song instead of driving it. Connor adds horns on the ballad “Shadow Lover,” another brassy showpiece for her songwriting and limber voice. She downshifts for the torchy “Greatest of These,” going full Sade and leaving the guitar pyrotechnics behind while slithering out snakelike leads.

Those looking for six-string fireworks get them on “Shine On,” overdubbing swampy solos, then bringing in Jason Ricci’s kinetic harmonica to close the deal. The 3 ½ minutes fly by so quickly, you’ll wish she and Ricci extended this collaboration longer. On “Two of a Kind” Connor combines funk, soul, and blues on another explosive example of her guitar prowess, breaking into a scorching solo as the horns pump. She revisits the classic “Mercury Blues,” the disc’s lone cover, shifting into overdrive on the searing slide skills the tune demands as drums pound the beat. It burns.

By expanding her sonic palette to a more soulful approach, Joanna Connor displays a fuller spectrum of her already extraordinary talents in the appropriately titled Best of Me.         

Photo by Maryam Wilcher / Mark Pucci Media

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