Being the British half of GDW, I may have long since severed ties in the physical sense from my geographical place of birth, but thanks to both satellite radio here in the US and ‘music-minded friends’ sharing artist recommendations from the old country, manage to maintain some connection to the folk-roots music scene from afar. Hence our occasional Commonwealth Connections articles – originally my little corner of the blog for sharing new music from UK artists – before discovering music from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond. Canadian folk-roots music shall always be our primary focus, but every now and then, we’re happy to mix things up a little – good music has to be heard, after all.
Although a household name for many, it would be late last summer before I became familiar with UK-based blues-rocker Joanne Shaw Taylor. Seeing this artists’ image plastered all over a local concert venue poster to advertise an upcoming live performance in the fall, my interest was piqued, and led to time spent researching her musical catalogue. Not only was Joanne a seasoned (and highly-regarded) veteran of the international blues-rock scene (discovered by Dave Stewart of 80s Grammy Award winning alt-pop duo Eurythmics, no less), she happened to be born and raised in the West Midlands – a stone’s throw from where I spent my formative years, and a region I have much familiarity with.
Born in Wednesbury (a town I visited several times as a youngster, having extended family living there at the time), Joanne grew up just ten miles north west from the city of Birmingham (where my own immediate family originate). My own stomping grounds were about twenty miles further west from Joanne’s home turf, and while not necessarily a glaring metropolis on the map, since the mid 80s I could stake my ‘claim-to-fame’ of growing up in the same town as T’Pau vocalist Carol Decker (born in Liverpool, but had connections to my hometown with the band). Heck, it gets better yet, when I think about it – there was a teacher at my high school who was related to Ozzy Osbourne (I can’t provide evidence to support that), and just a few years before I made my one-way-journey to North America, I had a co-worker who happened to drink in the same ‘village pub’ as Robert Plant. Right now, however, with both her meteoric rise and my own appreciation for blues-rock, I’ll happily lay claim to Joanne Shaw Taylor as the modern-era famous artist that I can tie loosely to my childhood home.
With the release of “Nobody’s Fool” back in October, I stumbled across a copy of the album during a recent stop at my local record store, and made sure to bring it home with me (side note, the record store is just a block away from the very theatre where Joanne performed last year, which we sadly had to miss due to being in ON that same weekend). Co-produced by Josh Smith and legendary rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa (who also contributes rhythm guitar duties), this eleven-song collection (and Joanne’s eighth studio album) was recorded over just one week in July 2022 at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles – with the artist further embracing a solid blues genre that she has both steadily and naturally gravitated to over her last couple of album releases. “It occurred to me that now may be the only time I could sit down and write something completely different,” Joanne offers in the album liner notes. “It was hugely exciting, slight scary but very satisfying, creating music and melodies that I hadn’t previously explored and pushing myself to try something different.”
Opening with the title track, the tone and pace are set very quickly, and after some initial higher end guitar riffs, the familiar blues-rock beat we expect to hear burst from the speakers. “I’m someone to no-one / I’ve always live by that rule / Cause when you’re nothing to no one, baby / Then you’re nobody’s fool.” The very mention of blues music can conjure up a broad cross-section of expectations, so diverse is the genre, but you’ll hear no complaints from this particular retro-rocker when encountering some classic Allman Brothers elements tagging along for the ride. The same can be said about “The Leaving Kind,” where a slow and slightly off-key guitar solo, that just oozes a timeless Stairway To Heaven vibe, adds in a little flamenco flavor – along with “Won’t Be Fooled Again,” which has a bluesy heartbeat, yet one that beats to a little more of an AOR tune.
Indeed, “Won’t Be Fooled Again” has plenty of crossover appeal, and for me, could easily slot into an 80s movie soundtrack. Surely, I am not alone here picturing images of a focal movie character slumped casually behind the wheel of an era-appropriate American convertible – top down – cruising the Pacific Coast highway as the tune blasts along? “That’s not to say – I made up my mind / That’s not to say ‘ I’m gonna leave you behind / Cause I don’t doubt – that you’re doing your best / It’s just my heart – won’t be fooled again.” It is so easy to envision the vehicle surrounded by the stunning scenery, those carefully selected camera angles bouncing around between the driver’s face, the view from the windshield, the ‘drone-style’ overhead shot – all in rapid succession, before the gradual fade of both sound and image as the gas guzzler disappears into the distance. Joe Bonamassa certainly adds extra sauce on this one to create such a vivid scene.
Joanne and her band are more than comfortable respecting the blues music playbook across this album. “Bad Blood” adds some western-noir twang, sprinkled nicely with timely splashes of Hammond B3. It is so easy to imagine the band somehow filling a tiny bar-room stage, a smoky haze between them and their audience, who may or may not fully appreciate just how perfectly the extended guitar solo falls in right on cue, before yielding to Joanne’s final verse and chorus. Some classic short riffs provide a four count to open “Just Not Getting Over You (Dream Cruise),” before the band and a killer horn section earn your attention. A little reverb in the vocals add plenty of atmosphere, and at the precise moment where you ponder to yourself, ‘this needs some saxophone’ – well, there must be a genie out there, because there it is…your wish is granted. Be careful – you only have two more rubs of that lamp remaining now.
Closing the first side of the vinyl pressing is “Fade Away” (featuring cellist Tina Guo), a much slower pace dictated early by a combination of piano keys and muted drum taps. Joanne’s heartfelt, yet somewhat smoky vocals fill your airspace, accompanied by a gradual infusion of strings that quickly transform this into a phenomenal piano-centered ballad. I’m a sucker for these, as you know, and I encourage you not to raise the arm on your turntable too soon, lest you miss the moving strings that wrap up Side A. Flip the album over, drop the needle once again, and prepare to be back in blues-rock nirvana. The band come out firing on all cylinders to kick off Side B – I’m hearing elements of The Pointer Sisters with those vocal cries, Joanne dropping off in absolute perfect time (once again) to yield to the lead guitar, switching back in the same manner. Nothing here that will surprise you, but plenty to make you feel good – this is a blast-from-the-past type of tune that will have you instinctively cranking up the loud dial.
Time has proven that Joanne is equally comfortable covering popular tunes, and tosses a fabulous curveball into the mix here – opting to perform “Missionary Man,” the popular 1986 Eurythmics hit – AND invites Dave Stewart to perform alongside – what a coup! Why not put those musical connections to good use, right? Stamping her signature sound all over this cover, this is not a carbon copy of the song we all know and love. Instead, we have a bass-heavy introduction, and while the pace is similar, Joanne’s voice is a few octaves below that of Annie Lennox, and comes wrapped in a little more rock swagger. As for following that final verse, I challenge you to resist not singing along to those seven repeated lines – just like you did back in 1986.
Closing with “New Love,” it is hard to believe that almost 40 minutes have passed by – all sense of time lost to being in the moment with this music. Not indifferent to the way a seasoned veteran of the live scene would send you home in style, Joanne’s finale adds four more minutes of high energy to satisfy the senses. With plenty of backbeat, and almost Motown-inspired rhythmic drive, this is a feel-good anthem wrapped up in an up-tempo rock-soul package – possessing that recorded live off the floor vibe, with stunning harmonies and the return of the horns section for one final outing.
Having enjoyed (and reviewed) a handful of blues albums over the years, I have gotten so accustomed (in particular) to female lead vocalists within this genre possessing a powerful set of vocal cords – from Grace Potter and Brittany Howard here in the US, to both Samantha Martin and Meghan Parnell (Bywater Call) up north. Joanne Shaw Taylor does not need to stretch her larynx to unbelievable depths to compete here, instead allowing her songwriting, her instrumentation, and her polished-yet-authentic sound and style to dictate her presence.
No matter what the night of the week, we can always find an album to fit the mood – but when it comes to Saturday night tunes, we should be much more selective, we should not settle for anything less than extra special. “Nobody’s Fool” from Joanne Shaw Taylor is a Saturday night album, pure and simple! Don’t play this at low volume on a Tuesday night – save it instead for when you are ready to fully unwind and need something with a great beat blasting from the speakers. Joanne’s style of blues-rock is one based on passion, on excitement, on adrenaline – destined to be played loud and when you are ready to let your hair down. It’s perfect for retro 80s themed nights too! Joanne Shaw Taylor is a fabulous addition to our Commonwealth Connections club – and is equally at home here as one of our Find A New Favorite’s, or Take A Chance On Me, or First Spin, First Impressions features. Oh, what’s this I see about a live concert album release …. gonna fly now…
Photo Credit: Artist Website