The blues can be extremely difficult to play without sounding derivative. There have been so many great performers that have come before, and because it is such a defined genre, it takes great strength of personality to leave a distinctive imprint on the music.
Virtuosity and talent notwithstanding, if you can’t put your own distinct flavour into the blues you just become another one in a series of guitar players, singers or harmonica blowers. It’s hard to describe what that quality is, but you know it when you hear it. B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Bob Brozman, Ry Cooder, and Leon Redbone are musicians who reach out and grab you with their performances. But they are rarities, with most of today’s contemporary blues players being highly skilled, technically sound, but missing that certain something that separates them from the pack.
Sue Foley has been playing blues music professionally for 18 years, and will be releasing her tenth album, New Used Cars, on April 11, 2006. There is no denying the woman can play the guitar, from the Led Zeppelin style blues-rock of the title track “New Used Cars”, to the “Beast Of Burden”-sounding “Do It Again”.
But therein lies the her weakness – the material all sounds so familiar. I don’t want to listen to a song by one person and immediately be reminded of another performer’s work. I know that the blues are a tradition-based music, a particular sound based around a progression of specific chords, but within that framework there is still room for innovation.
Ms. Foley is to be credited for writing, or collaborating on, all the tracks on this CD. Too many blues players are content with slavish imitations of versions of songs that have been done for years. However there has been no attempt to explore any of the avenues of blues expression that have been opened by some of her contemporaries.
There are only a finite number of songs that can be drawn from the sounds of the Mississippi Delta before all the songs start to run into one another as a blur. The same goes for modern interpretations. It’s been a couple of years since Ry Cooder released his CD of music with the recently deceased Arabian blues specialist, Ali Farka Toure, long enough you’d think for people to start exploring new avenues of expression.
One only need look at the work of her fellow countryman Harry Manx and Australian Bob Brozman to see how the music can still be revered while at the same time pushing the boundaries of its definition. Both musicians have rooted themselves strongly in the mud of the Mississippi but haven’t let the weight of tradition give them clay feet creatively.
I think what disappoints me the most is that Ms. Foley is a scholar of the blues and has done extensive research on female blues musicians from all over the world. She co-produced and compiled the two disk set Blues Guitar Women released by Ruff Records last fall.
The research she used for that two disc set was drawn from the work she’s been doing on her book Guitar Woman, slated for publication in 2007. She talks about the women who have influenced her and those she has interviewed, but somehow it doesn’t feel like this knowledge has been translated into her playing.
New Used Car is a disc of technically sound blues music that covers the full spectrum of styles and genres. But like so many of her male counterparts, Sue Foley’s sound leaves me cold. She obviously has a great passion for the music — witness her dedication to researching the role of women in the blues — but somehow it doesn’t come across in her playing on this disc.