Sue Foley

Antone’s 0019


Johnny Winter

Pointblank/Charisma 91744-2

When singer-guitarist Memphis Minnie exploded onto the blues scene in the late 1920s, listeners were astounded that a woman could play guitar “like a man.” By the 1940s, when Minnie had adapted her style to the electric guitar and was helping to lay the foundation for what would someday become modern Chicago blues, her aggressive spirit and unflagging musicianship had become blues legend.

Modern blueswomen like Bonnie Raitt and Koko Taylor have acknowledged Minnie as a major influence. But aside from Raitt, whose slide guitar work is serviceable but seldom extraordinary, few women have attempted to emulate Minnie’s electric-fretboard mastery. Now, out of Canada by way of Texas, comes Sue Foley. All of 23 years old, she’s the most serious contender for Minnie’s crown we’ve seen in years.

Foley’s debut LP, on the Antone’s label, is Young Girl Blues, and given her age and waiflike voice the title’s appropriate; some of her lyrics even describe the trials and tribulations of a “youngster” adrift in a cold world. But underlying the youthful image and somewhat underdeveloped voice is some audaciously adult guitar work.

The mismatch between playing and singing occurs on several cuts. On “Queen Bee,” Foley’s version of Slim Harpo’s “King Bee” (minus the undulating bass line that characterizes most versions of the song) Foley crunches along in an admirable blues-rock vein, heavy on the metallic fire and light on the subtlety, though she does pull off a few attractive single-string echoes of Guitar Slim. But her voice, despite the obvious attempts to embellish it electronically, is weak, thin, and adolescent sounding, with little of the worldly knowingness essential to this kind of song. On “Mean Old Lonesome Train” (featuring the superb Kim Wilson on harp), Foley’s voice is so lacking in nuance or shading that it tends to dilute the music’s intensity: her playing is tinged with darkness and a grim determination as she promises that no man will “make a monkey out of me.”

Things come together more fully on Memphis Minnie’s “(Me & My) Chauffeur Blues,” a countryish romp based on the standard “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” riff. Like Raitt, Foley excels at up-tempo blends of country folk and traditional blues. The style lends itself to her vocal talents, though she has yet to summon the aching immediacy of Raitt’s voice.

Not surprisingly, Foley shines brightest on instrumentals. Ike Turner’s “Cuban Getaway” might have been mere novelty fluff but Foley makes it surprisingly substantial–she’s got the knack of taking even humor seriously. The song’s rumba beat is hokey but effective, and Foley’s shimmering, reverb-drenched guitar evokes a romanticized island exoticism. She chords powerfully, and her string-bending leads mix tenderness and humor.

With her distinctive combination of fleet single-string improvising and mellifluous slide, Foley obviously owes a substantial debt to the late guitarist Earl Hooker, and she includes two Hooker compositions here. “Off the Hook” she delivers with Texas-roadhouse jauntiness: Foley has Hooker’s clean melodic attack down pat, and she adds a few T-Bone Walker licks as a further tribute to roots. This tasteful, mature guitar workout is worthy of an artist far beyond Foley’s years. “Hooked on Love” features the slithering minor-key riff most people associate with Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” but appropriately Foley approaches it with Hooker’s graceful melodic sophistication rather than Rush’s tormented intensity–she makes her guitar talk with an almost comic inventiveness. She’s especially effective in the middle and lower registers; unlike many guitarists, she doesn’t seem to feel she has to scream to be effective. And when she finally ascends into a high treble, the climax is all the more effective.

Some cuts show encouraging signs that Foley’s voice might develop into an effective instrument. On “Walkin Home,” a proto-rockabilly chug-chug-chugger, Foley finds more vocal power–she still falls flat in a few places, but her plaintive wail takes on a new urgency and the song’s boogie-in-the-face-of-despair fatalism lends itself to her street-tough-waif persona.

The centerpiece of the LP, though, is “Gone Blind,” a Foley original. Here she sings accompanied only by her guitar, and her voice takes on a plaintive, stark quality, backed by fuzzy, distorted picking that sounds like a street musician playing through a cheap amp. The intensity she achieves here is nothing short of frightening–you almost seem to see her soul being wrenched apart as she bends notes and claws away at her strings. Young Girl Blues is an impressive debut by an artist who may mature into a major talent.

Johnny Winter’s Let Me In is a new contribution from a bluesman well on his way to elder-statesman status. Winter has had some rough times in his career and he hasn’t emerged unscathed, but there’s no denying the sincerity of his passion or the magnitude of his talent.

Characteristically, Winter hits the air screaming. “Illustrated Man,” the opening cut, is a blast of vintage Winter fire, with a roaring rhythm section and over-the-top, fire-spitting leads. At this point Winter’s guitar is beyond criticism–he’s toned down his excesses, but he’s still got that machine-gun multinote style, playing straight-ahead blues in manic linear patterns–he doesn’t build a solo so much as blast straight through it. The lyrics are playful macho boasts about his tattoos: “Got a screamin’ demon on my chest / Cat face on my thigh / I got naked women all over me / Until the day I die.” The hint of self-parody is welcome in an age of blues aspirants who take themselves too seriously.

Unlike a lot of our younger roaring-bull bluesmen, Winter is capable of profound emotional depth and variety. “Life Is Hard,” featuring a lovely piano intro from Dr. John, is a moody, minor-key slow blues with a bleak, despairing, fatalistic vision (“Life is hard and then you die”), and Winter sings it like he means it. A tender and surprisingly melodious bridge redeems it from utter hopelessness, as Winter’s solo bites off flaming shards over the easy-rolling backing. Dr. John weighs in with one of the gems of his recorded career: cascading minor-key flurries with an aching gospel-blues sensibility and just enough of his patented New Orleans rolling optimism to keep hope alive.

Strangely, given the presence of Dr. John, one of the least successful cuts is Robert Parker’s “Barefootin”‘–a New Orleans classic. Winter sings it as a straight-ahead rocker, stripping it down like a hot young roadhouse madman might have done in Texas back in the 60s. It sounds almost like a throwback to Winter’s youth. The result is entertaining enough, but by eliminating the song’s Crescent City second-line funk Winter creates a stylistic void.

Also sounding out of place is “Medicine Man,” which comes off as a 60s throwback–eerie, fuzzed-out modal intro; swirling aural effects and a vintage neo-psychedelic fusion of kaleidoscopic imagery (both musical and lyrical); and testosterone-drenched blues macho. It sounds more Marin County than Texas roadhouse, and it detracts from the straight-ahead intensity of the rest of the LP.

Much more effective is “Blue Mood,” an unusual pop-jazz acoustic-guitar workout. Winter croons it in as mellow a voice as he’s ever summoned, and he picks with a precise, aggressive sweetness, hinting at T-Bone Walker in places but also achieving a remarkable translation of his own electric-guitar style. What could have been a novelty number turns out a lovely, unexpected delight, delivered with sincerity and class.

It’s a tribute to Winter’s eclectic talents that he can succeed on both “Blue Mood” and “Sugaree.” This isn’t the “Sugaree” made famous by Elizabeth Cotten, nor is it the Grateful Dead’s hoary anthem. Rather it’s a rocking, balls-out cover of an old Marty Robbins country tune, embellished by splintered rock-and-roll piano from Dr. John and a thunderous backbeat from the rhythm section. Winter provides a solo that harks back to the frantic intensity of his youth, starting off with a wild elaboration on Chuck Berry riffs and then ascending into the stratosphere.

Special note should be made of the contributions of Chicago harp player Billy Branch to Let Me In. On “Hey You,” a propulsive rock blues, he swoops and moans with aplomb over a humorous call-and-response chorus between Winter and an ad hoc vocal group that includes producer Dick “Big Voice” Shurman. But Branch’s real showcase is “If You Got a Good Woman,” where he comes wailing in as Winter’s solo slithers and squirms like a stripped-down version of Duane Allman. Blowing for his life amid all this raw sound, Branch pours out harsh warbles that fuse Big Walter’s harmonic ideas with a majestically raw tone reminiscent of Little Walter.

The closing cut, a Dr. John original called “You Lie Too Much,” is probably the most delightful. Lyrically it’s a typical Dr. John pastiche of hard-edged hipster imagery–“You sold some to the policeman / The neighbors raised a grudge / But you didn’t give a damn because you had sold some to the judge / Honey, you lie too much . . . Stagger Lee and Charlie Brown, honey you lie with every man in town.” Winter’s voice finds a gritty groove of bluesy irony akin to that of the good Doctor himself, the guitar solos are gutsy with an appropriate dollop of humor, and the band churns away enthusiastically. It’s an appropriate finale to an album that’s primarily a rollicking good time, though it also provides some rare moments of insight into another, more somber side of Winter’s personality.