Gig Review: Joanne Shaw Taylor
Damn right I’ve got the Blues.
Let’s get something straight from the start. A brief moment of contemporaneity when electricity met country blues to form a voice of urban black America in the middle of the last century apart, the blues has always been something of a heritage industry. From the blues of the British invasion bands of the sixties via Stevie Ray’s Texas swagger through to twenty-first century titans of the genre like Joe Bonamassa, homage and tradition have always been central to the genre. Nothing, claim the naysayers, illustrates this trajectory better than the career of The Rolling Stones: from outlaws playing the Devil’s music to cosy canters around the 12-bar corral on BBC Radio Two’s mid-morning slot.
So the churlish might say that it’s fitting that I’m watching Joanne Shaw Taylor at Sheffield’s City Hall. Here, they might say, is period music played on period instruments in the sumptuous period setting of the Hall’s Ballroom. But the churlish would be missing the point, as they often do in their quest deliver the perfect quip. If you’re looking for an innovative mash-up between grime and chamber music, you don’t go to a blues gig. You go to a blues gig because you already know in advance what you’re going to get. With that in mind, what you get with Joanne Shaw Taylor and her band is a lot – and judging from the size and appreciation of the crowd, a lot of people are perfectly happy with that deal.
It’s almost obligatory for a reviewer to note that Joanne Shaw Taylor was ‘discovered’ by Dave Stewart, the maverick musical genius behind The Eurythmics. But that doesn’t really mean anything. The blessing of a famous name might help you get through the door, but you only stick around if you’ve got talent, grit, and application to burn. It’s pretty clear on the evidence on this evening’s performance that Joanne Shaw Taylor has all of these things – but she has something extra too. ‘What is that?’ I hear you ask. No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. The boxes that are so obvious that their importance is often overlooked are well and truly ticked. The band is tight enough to spin on a sixpence, and flexible enough to build from a whisper to a roar and back again. These moves are called dynamics. We don’t hear much about them in these ‘max everything we’re mixing for radio and streaming’ days, but they’re everything when it comes to making music. Oh, and they can all sing harmony well enough to make the autotune generation put the microphone down quietly and step away from the limelight.
So far, so good. What set the gig apart, though, was the way that Joanne Shaw Taylor approaches her instrument. In the world of the blues, there are plenty of artists who are clearly doing it by rote. She isn’t one of them. Yes, the licks are recycled. There are only so many classic progressions, so many classic licks, and so many classic tones in the canon. The pentatonic runs, the Hendrix fourths, BB. King’s sweetness, and Albert K’s sting are all there – if you listen for them.
But crucially, and it really is crucial, there is no sense that Joanne Shaw Taylor is playing them by rote. When she hits the boost switch and slips the leash on her playing, she tears in. This isn’t a ‘here are the licks I know work over these chords in this song that sounds the same as the last song’ routine. There is diversity in the material, and throughout there is a woman going for it with energy, spirit, and verve in a way that that some of the boys should take a long hard look at. Blues guitar heroes have always been required to be fiery, feisty, and flashy, of course. ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti didn’t appear around London during his Bluesbreakers days because of his taste and restraint but because his playing then was raw and aggressive, forming a template for the sound and approach that has become well-worn in the decades since. But where male guitar heroes tend to gurn and grimace through their moves – ‘really feeling it, man’ – Joanne Shaw Taylor smiles as she rips into her leads, a big, beaming, joyous smile. Lifting the songs and firing up the audience, she’s enjoying this. As a result, so do we.
This is helped by the fact that Joanne and her band seem to have remembered that this music is all about connection. As they work painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) towards the climax of their umpteenth 72 bar guitar solo in a blur of 128th note licks that sound just like all the others, some practitioners seem to have forgotten that the form came out of the bawdy houses and gin joints. It was music to drink and dance and have a good time to, not to nod appreciatively at the axe work. There’s nothing wrong with athletic virtuosity, but it isn’t music and you can’t dance to it. I can’t remember the last time a blues band made me move. I’m not talking about the appreciative nodding of the head in time with the kick and the snare. I’m talking about the groove getting under my skin and toe-tapping turning to outright boogieing. No, dear reader, I hadn’t been drinking. Joanne Shaw Taylor managed it. Nor was I alone. There were plenty of others doing the same and more than one couple who held each other close during the more reflective numbers, touchingly slow-dancing.
The blues will never be cutting edge and contemporary again. But it has something better. It’s timeless, which means that each generation finds something of it itself in it. As such it will still be going strong when the hip new sound of 2017 is so much landfill. It also has Joanne Shaw Taylor.