It wasn't too long ago that you could count the number of women rock-guitar players on the fingers of one hand. After Bonnie Raitt, the Wilson sisters from Heart, and Melissa Ethbridge you had to really struggle in order to think of anyone else.
Well, as the man said, the times they are a changing, and now its becoming more and more common to see a woman fronting a band not only as the lead singer, but also as the lead guitar player. They're obviously still a minority, but at least now it's no longer considered an oddity or a novelty act when a woman fronts a band; the days of people saying, "Hey, she plays pretty good for a chick" are becoming a thing of the past.
I don't know if it's a coincidence or not, but a good many of these guitar women are showing up fronting blues bands. A couple of years back the German independent blues label, Ruf Records released a two disc set called Blues Guitar Women. Canadian guitarist Sue Foley, who helped put together the compilation, said in her liner notes that she found it alarming that she was able to fill two CDs so easily, because it made her realize just how many women were out there playing the blues, and how many weren't getting the recognition they deserve.
Unfortunately, just like their male counterparts, a great many of these guitar players are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. It seems like women are just as inclined to fall into the loud, hard, and fast school of playing as men, forgetting that a little bit of diversity makes music a heck of lot more interesting. So when someone like Joanne Shaw Taylor shows up with a CD like her forthcoming White Sugar (January 1, '09 on Ruf Records) I pay attention. Not only has Joanne written all the tracks on the CD, she understands that music, especially the blues, sounds a whole lot better when you don't play the same thing over and over again.
As with so many blues guitar players since the 1960s, Taylor hails from Great Britain, and like those who came before her she looked to the United States for her inspiration. In her press materials she cited Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert Collins as the musicians who made her want to pick up a guitar and dedicate herself to playing the blues. Although she has also followed in their footsteps by fronting a trio, she sells herself short by saying she fronts a power trio. For while it's true her music has plenty of power, there's none of the 'let's make their ears bleed' mentality that I would normally associate with the term.
At sixteen, in 2002, she was touring Europe with former Eurythmics guitar player Dave Stewart's super group D.U.P., and maybe that experience played a role in developing her sensitivity to the potentials that exist in blues music. Whatever the reason White Sugar not only demonstrates that Taylor can play and sing, but understands music far better than a great many musicians with far more years under their belts. It's hard to put into words what it was about the music that gave me that impression, but listening to the disc, one of the first things I noticed was that each note played on her guitar was a distinct moment in time no matter how fast she was playing or what effects had been added. It was like every note she played or sang was the most important one in her life and she was investing all of herself into that moment.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that her voice sounds like it's wreathed in the smoke of a thousand whiskey soaked bar rooms. Unlike some who affect rawness in their singing voice, Taylor hasn't sacrificed expression for character, which prevents her from becoming monotonous. Whether she's playing a slow blues number like "Time Has Come" or a hard rocker like "Who Do You Want Me To Be" she makes her vocals as interesting as her guitar playing. While her range may not be the biggest, she makes full use of what she has, and understands that you don't have to be loud to express passion or power.
However, it's her guitar playing where she really shines, for no matter whether she's playing Texas blues, playing hard, or playing soft she shows an affinity for the music and her instrument that belies her years. Any half way decent guitar player can bend notes or run leads, but what separates the gifted from the rest of the pack is the expression they are able to put into their music. The guitar should sound like its an extension of the player's singing voice, crying out those words that we can't articulate because we don't have a vocabulary extensive enough for that kind of passion.
When Taylor's guitar leads follow hard upon her lyrics it sounds like she's continuing the thought she began while singing. No matter how fast she's playing you can't help but hear how interconnected the music and the lyrics are. Her guitar leads add an extra layer of emotion to what was being expressed by her vocals. So, instead of sounding like an obvious lead break, one flows into the other seamlessly. One of the reasons Taylor is able to do that so well is she's as equally comfortable playing rhythm as she is cranking out the leads. This is really obvious on a song like "Heavy Heart" with its R&B groove that she plays with an almost elegant smoothness.
Joanne Shaw Taylor joins the ever growing number of young women who have picked up electric guitars and pursued the life of a blues guitar player. With White Sugar, her first solo release, Taylor shows that she has the promise to be a force to be reckoned with. While there are plenty of people who can sing, play guitar, and write songs, there are precious few who have the passion and soul that elevates their music beyond the ordinary: Joanne Shaw Taylor, is one of them.