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NIGHT LIFE

Hard-Drivin' Blues Artist Really Rocks : Joanna Connor will perform in Ventura. She says the ranks of female guitarists are increasing.

June 17, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This week's rockin' blues act coming to the Blue Monday gig at the Holiday Inn in Ventura is Joanna Connor. She can make more sweat than the chain gang relay team jogging in place in a sauna in Bakersfield. In August. This isn't that bluesy blues where everyone cries in their beer before nodding themselves off to sleep. Connor plays a mean slide guitar.

She even has fans, like Michael Kaufer, the promoter of Blue Monday. Then again, asking Kaufer what he thinks of Connor is like asking Mom if she likes Junior--he's not going to say, "She stinks, don't come to the show."

"I think she's the baddest blues mama in the world," he said, not surprisingly. But maybe he's right. Connor's second album, "Fight" on Blind Pig Records, simply put, rocks. Her bio sheet makes comparisons with Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, which beats the heck out of Roseanne Barr and Lydia Lunch.

It's easy to pin Connor as a real blues musician and road warrior because it took six days to track her down, as she and five compatriots--including the band, Connor's mom and her young son--were busy driving around in a van. What percentage of interstate traffic is really blues musicians driving between gigs? Maybe it takes endless road trips to keep the blues alive.

"We just drove from Florida to Austin, Tex., in two days," said Connor during a recent phoner from yet another motel room. "About all you can stand is 600 miles per day with six people in the van. This is the only way I can make a living. Everything's so far apart in this country, but I have to work this much. It takes a lot of work to make any money in the music business."

Connor, 30, is from Brooklyn by way of Worchester, Mass., but relocated to Chicago the hard way, via Greyhound bus in 1984. If you want to get the blues, that's the place to be. Just ask any Cubs fan.

"I think the blues were in me since I was born," Connor said. "I heard it since I was a kid and I was attracted to the blues and blues-based rock. I had a group in Massachusetts playing rhythm guitar when I was 22. When I decided I wanted to focus on the guitar, I jumped into the fire and learned everything firsthand.

"Chicago has a tremendous local scene even though it doesn't always get the attention it deserves. There's great players in the clubs, and you really gotta be a good musician to make it there. I mean, it's the school of hard knocks and no one's gonna be polite."

Well, everyone has been polite since Connor made a name for herself in the Windy City, where female guitarists are about as numerous as they are anywhere else. But this may be changing. It's the '90s, and the blues are an equal opportunity employer.

"I think it's changing as far as female guitarists are concerned," Connor said. "The more I travel around, I meet more and more woman players who come up to me after the shows. For a while, I thought I was all by myself, but now, even in small towns, there are women who are really good players."

When Connor isn't driving around on the endless Tom Bodette/truck stop tour, she and the group are in a foreign country.

"When we're in Europe we attract a much younger crowd, maybe 17 to 25 years old," she said. "In Germany, there's a lot of hippies. In Japan, the audience was very rigid, but they got into it. To foreigners, I think blues is really exotic."

In between all those fun gigs came the weird one. What could be stranger than playing for a bunch of Republicans? Despite President George's efforts, the GOP doesn't rock.

"One time, we played in Omaha for a Republican mayoral candidate," she said. "I don't know how we got that gig. The guy owned everything in Omaha and he looked like a robot. I had an all-black band at the time and one guy in the crowd was staring at us. . . . Anyway, I had this drummer who was 6 feet, 2 inches and weighed about 200 pounds, and he walked right up to that guy and shook hands with him. This sort of broke the ice."

Show time upstairs at the Holiday Inn is 8:15 p.m. with swing dancing lessons beginning an hour earlier. And hey, beer fans, no more elevator action--the bathrooms are fixed.

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