Where the Action Is
How do you critique an icon, especially one who may well be on her way to becoming a legend? A popular artist who has earned the respect of fans and fellow artists alike and garnered an impressive number of awards and accolades can present a daunting challenge to the reviewer. A new or little-known artist presents only the challenge of evaluating the work itself: the craft, skill and potential of the artist. The only baggage, if any, is brought to the process by the reviewer’s own experience. To review a star, whether established or rising, presents a whole other set of problems. Whether the reviewer praises, criticizes, or presents a balanced picture of the work under review, the process can feel like a no-win situation. The reviewer who offers the artist only praise can be seen as an uncritical fan. The reviewer who points out flaws in the performace or suggests areas for improvement may experience the ire of fans who have elevated the artist to perfection. A balanced and fair reviewer may come under attack from both sides, who see only the bits with which they disagree. What’s an honest reviewer to do?
Reaching at random deep into my backlog, I found Where the Action Is, a six year old release by Canadian blues artist Sue Foley. Foley is a case in point. Starting in her teens, Foley has by now enjoyed a successful career of some 24 years. At forty, she’s young as blues artists go, beautiful, and has opened for and played with the top Canadian and American blues artists. She has a powerful singing style and guitar licks to match the best of them. If she’s not a star already, then she’s certainly a blues-icon headed toward stardom. She has the prestigious honours to prove it. She’s won the Canadian Maple Blues Award eighteen times and France’s Trophée de blues three times. In 2002, the year Where the Action Is was released, she was nominated for W.C. Handy Award for best contemporary female artist. Foley is also a winner of the covetted Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent to the American Grammy. Foley has eleven releases on CD as well as a live DVD Sue Foley, Live in Europe. Where the Action Is was produced by and features supporting performances by fellow Canadian blues-icon Colin Linden, who recruited some of North America’s finest musicians to back up Foley’s performances. How do you approach such a phenomenon with any sort of objectivity? Perhaps you don’t.
Arguably, some of the best modern blues is being played and recorded in Canada. There’s a large and supportive community of fans and players across The Great White North, and American artists often bring their own brand of blues north to perform and record in our largest cities. Ottawa’s Sue Foley is part of that blues-movement, helping to popularize the form not only among the already-converted but among fans of folk music and Rock and Roll as well. She’s become known from her native Ontario to the American South and from coast to coast across the continent. That she has a great deal of talent cannot be denied. Rather than take a narrow look at Foley as she is now or as she may have been when she recorded this, her eighth release, through the filter of Foley’s work I’d like to draw upon a broader palette: Canadian blues, of which this release is an example.
Somewhere across the decades, the definition of The Blues both changed and blurred. This is normal for any genre of music that grows and reaches audiences beyond its roots. Jazz was once one recognizable form but now encompasses a wide range of forms and styles. Rock and Roll, itself the outgrowth of last century’s ever-evolving music, evolved into Rock and a range of related styles. So it is with The Blues. In Canada, much of the blues music to be heard in local bars and on recordings would once have been called Rock and Roll. This blues is big, electric, and rocking. It’s still The Blues but it’s also so much more.
Fifty years ago, I was exposed to blues music a lot and never realized it. My parents had very eclectic musical taste, some of which extended to pop covers of blues songs, rocking blues-based country songs, rhythm and blues, and traditional blues. By my early teens, I was listening to static-ridden American radio and haunting second-hand stores for old records, buying them mostly because the titles interested me and not for any particular songs. A lot of what I bought was jazz, R & B, and blues music. I was in Calgary, far from the centres of this type of music. What I was buying was, I believed, up-tempo Rock and Roll and what was then sometimes called slow-rock. I realized later that sometimes the up-tempo numbers were blues-based Rockabilly, Country music, or covers of blues songs by mainstream artists and the slower songs were blues-based Rock and Roll, R & B, or even electric blues. When I discovered Alan Freed, a lot of what he had been calling Rock and Roll was in exactly this same blues-based vein. Cliff Richard’s blues-based Rock and Roll was followed into Canada by the music of other British artists like The Rolling Stones, John Mayall so on. I was also listening to music from Europe, especially France, that had similar influences. It was not obvious to me in my teens that this music was particularly American. My idea of American blues was the very traditional, folksy guy and a guitar material: Josh White, Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly.
Sue Foley is substantially younger than I am. Even so, as a youngster in Canada, she would have been exposed to later versions of the same influences. It’s easy to imagine that Foley’s style may have been shaped by not just the blues in the music she heard but also the other forms with which that sound had been infused. There is a thin line between the electric blues of B. B. King, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Willie Dixon, and others and the sounds of groups such as the Rolling Stones, Electric Light Orchestra, or John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Perhaps there is no line at all but a subtle transition from the one to the other. In this, her eighth release, the Sue Foley I hear is walking that line, as much in the world of Rock and Roll as that of The Blues
Take, for example, Etta James’ 1955 hit “Roll With Me Henry” (also known euphemistically as “The Wallflower”). An answer-song to the controversial hit “Work With Me Annie,” released by Hank Ballard a year earlier, this song was on the leading edge of early Rock and Roll. While clearly blues-based, this song remains among the best of old-time Rock and Roll. Foley’s remake of The Rolling Stone’s “Stupid Girl” retains some of that Stones’ sound but the rhythm section also carries strong echoes of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” and at times Richard Bell’s organ brings to mind some of the harder-rocking songs of Dylan’s early electric period. Much of the sound of “Two Bluebirds” also seems influenced by The Rolling Stones. “Gotta Keep Moving” reminds me of a couple of album tracks recorded by Chuck Berry, circa 1956. “Baby Where Are You?” and “Get Yourself Together” could easily have been recorded by Johnny Rivers forty years ago. Both songs definitely have his sound. A bit more bluesy, “Vertigo Blues” reminds me ever so much of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” with a bit more of a Rock edge. Contrary to the hard-edge of most songs on this release, “Every Hour” is a very cool, soft R & B love song composed by Foley but sounding like it had been lifted straight out of 1953.
There’s also an underlying country-music feel that surfaces in these songs from time to time and brings a bit of Rockabilly into the mix. A good part of this sense comes from Foley’s voice and her vocal style. On this release at least, Foley reminds me less of Etta James or Ruth Brown than of the Rock and Roll vocal style epitomized by Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. I would say this is a good thing. Some Blues afficionados might disagree with me. See for yourself. Check out Foley’s rocking style on her video of “Walking Home” or watch her slip even further to the Country side as she sings the classic “Careless Love” while on a 2006 tour in Europe. [Of course, neither of these songs is on the release we're discussing here and they serve only as illustration.]
Sue Foley is one of Canada’s finest blues guitarists. That’s not me saying so but her fans and her musician peers. She is also a fine vocalist with an excellent sense of the words she sings. Listening to her songs, her talent as a lyrist and composer is clear. Where the Action Is, her eighth release, can provide interesting insights into where this artist has been and where she’s going. With eleven CD releases, a DVD of her concerts in Europe, and a new book soon to be released, Foley is one of Canada’s rising stars. I may hear a lot of great Rock and Roll in this music but, at root, at the heart of everything Sue Foley does is The Blues.
Discover Sue Foley at SueFoley.com where you’ll also find the two performance videos included in this review plus two more. If you go to Myspace, you can hear four of Sue Foley’s songs.
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