Fiona Boyes,
Blues Woman
(Yellow Dog, 2009)

Joanne Shaw Taylor,
White Sugar
(Ruf, 2009)

Dani Wilde,
Heal My Blues
(Ruf, 2008)

Late one evening a few weeks ago, casually surfing channels, I stumbled upon the strange spectacle of a blues outfit playing before a small audience of elderly, befuddled-looking rustics in a barn ... in Romania. The band, which alongside the standard blues instruments featured hammered dulcimer, fiddle and balalaika, was performing a Jimmy Reed song in English.

Nothing quite so outlandish is happening with the three CDs here, but they do attest -- to the shock only of those who haven't yet noticed -- that blues has long since ceased being exclusively African-American and Southern, or even American. Fiona Boyes, who now divides her living between Melbourne and Portland, Oregon, honed her talents on the Australian blues scene. Joanne Shaw Taylor and Dani Wilde are two young women from England. All are guitarists of advanced technical ability. Two record for Ruf, a Germany-based label. Yellow Dog, Boyes' label, lays claim to a more traditional blues home: Memphis.

I like Boyes a lot. I reviewed her previous album, Lucky 13 (recorded with the Fortunetellers), here on 4 November 2006, and praised its distinctive take on the tradition in all its anarchic exuberance and raunchy glory. Blues Woman is more of the same, divided between acoustic and electric arrangements, led by Boyes' full-tilt, good-humored vocals, warm sometimes, fiery others, at all times a menace to stony hearts. Of course, that wouldn't be possible if she weren't having a grand time of it herself -- or, even more to the point, if she weren't entirely fluent and comfortable in the language of the blues. "I'm a modern gal / But Lord, I've still got the old-time ways," she sings as if we couldn't figure that out on our own.

Of the three women here, Boyes is the least rock-influenced. Nobody would call what she's doing blues-rock. Its frames of reference are the unadulterated blues of Mississippi, Chicago and Texas, and the sounds range from country blues on one extreme to gritty, honkin' r&b on the other. If nearly all originals, the songs still sound as if they've been around awhile, maybe longer than Boyes herself. She has been likened (by me among others) to a 21st-century Memphis Minnie, which is as much flattery as the traffic will bear, but "21st century" is the key. She's no rank imitator. In other words, as you listen to her, you won't think for a moment that you may as well take your Minnie records off the shelf and put them on instead. Pinetop Perkins, Marcia Ball and Watermelon Slim are here for the party, too.

White Sugar is more accomplished and entertaining than one's instincts would lead one to believe. Joanne Shaw Taylor was 23 when this was recorded -- in Counce, Tennessee, far from her native Birmingham, England -- and 16 when Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics discovered her. As the opening cut "Going Home," my personal favorite, shows, Taylor's crisp blues-rock manages to carry accents, if slick ones, of the North Mississippi hill-blues (not to be confused with its cousin in the Delta). More influential, however, are Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, not just rock pioneers but modernizers of the blues vocabulary. Taylor continues the refining process with unerring restraint and good taste.

Dani Wilde sounds older than her young years, with an impressively expansive vocal style bursting with slurs and high-falsetto swoops. Though as much a rocker as a blues singer/guitarist, she takes a good chunk of her inspiration from hard-charging Chicago-style blues, r&b and modern-day belters like Shemekia Copeland. She may lack subtlety, but I suppose that's not the point. One imagines that she is hell on wheels live. Heal My Blues is recommended to listeners searching for something to raise drooping adrenalin levels.

review by
Jerome Clark

1 May 2010

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