Sunday, 29 September 2013

Joanne Shaw Taylor: Black Country blues. From Detroit.

JST's latest CD - live, one take stuff
In November, a Detroit-based blues guitarist comes to Birmingham Town Hall. Nothing particularly unusual in that, of course, we get touring US musicians all the time. But this one’s different. Joanne Shaw Taylor is a Brit, born in the Black Country, raised in Solihull and elsewhere across the West Midlands, and she’s got a ton of local connections. .

Now, she’s based stateside, by no means the only Brit to have moved countries to further a career. More recently, Davy Knowles, from tiny Port St Mary in the Isle of Man, relocated to the US to further his blues career, while Birmingham’s Toy Hearts – familiar to Joanne from their sets at the Roadhouse in Stirchley, South Birmingham - are currently in the middle of a very extended spell playing Western Swing and Bluegrass and working out of Austin, Texas.

It's not the first time that British musos have taken their versions of USA music back to the mother ship. Rewarding though it may be, it’s not the easiest of paths to travel.

If you were to be pegged in any kind of music hierarchy, I’d say you were a second or third generation British blues player – that’s if you take the likes of Clapton and the British Blues Boom in the sixties as a starting point. But what makes you stand out from the pack right now is that you are a British musician making a living in the homeland of blues. Can you explain that? 
Joanne Shaw Taylor It’s been a slow process. I’ve been gigging since I was 14, playing professionally since I was 16. It wasn’t overnight. There’s a lot to be said for enjoying the process, and I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do. I was fortunate when I came over to the US. It was very difficult – even my record label couldn’t get me US tour. It was part-naivety and part blind stupidity that made me decide, well, I’ll just do it myself.
So I started phoning venues in the US from my parents’, and wherever I was. I knew a band out of Detroit that had opened up for me, and so I asked if they could find me a rhythm section… a cheap van… that sort of thing. Fortunately, I’d secured enough dates to give me a work visa. 
I found when I was working in the US, was that the overriding criterion for success is: can you do the gig? If you can, you’re good to go, you’re in; everything else is secondary. Which, frankly, is different from the way we do things in the UK. 
There is a really nice mentality over here, which is, I guess, The American Way. Everything is there for the taking. You just got to work hard for it. 
So you’re in the US plying your trade… while over here there are not that many young blues players. Plenty of guys in their 50s and 60s, reliving Clapton is God with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers… But I’m actually not sure exactly how close to the blues that really is. I always felt the stuff we sold to the US in the 70s was a whole different thing. Our boys got the sexual and power element, the strutting, all that. But they didn’t get anything of the human element, the sadness… 
Hendrix too – he was very much the new pioneer of the blues guitar, very unlike the traditional blues player. 
Even though he had to come to the UK to make it. 
Yeah! But I think there is something to be said for all that. And I also think there really is a good scene in the UK, with lots of new guys coming through. More than when I started. Virgil and the AcceleratorsMatt Schofield, Ollie Brown, Chantel McGregor. Maybe they are not seen as real blues. A lot of them gravitate – like myself – to a rockier aspect. But that’s not any different to what Robert Plant was doing in the 70s. Singing with his shirt off. 
So on the last studio album, I worked though it looking for a 12 bar blues, and it’s like you just said… apart from Jealousy, which seems to be a signature song for you. 
It is a focal point of the set, yes. 
Do you still use a power trio format – because that’s not how you recorded?
We added a keyboard. It’s interesting that you picked up on the lack of traditional blues. Adding a keyboard has really opened up different material – soul ballads that I couldn’t do live as a 3 piece. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’m a blues artist – no blues shuffles, after all. 
When you come back to the UK, how does it feel? Are you treated as a returning hero, or as a traitor who has fled these shores? 
I’ve always had a good reaction. I love coming back. It’s still home. I’m very fortunate – I can tag on a couple of weeks with the family, so it’s always really nice for me. 
Over here, your hometown gig is Birmingham Town Hall; In London, the Shepherd's Bush Empire. What level of gig do you play in America? 
We build it up slowly. We’re getting off the bar blues scene where we can. It’s really hard to do in America, actually. There’s a really good scene for blues in the US, but it’s kind of a plateau. Really it’s only Joe Bonamassa who’s managed to get off that juke-joint blues club level. So we’ve done a lot of festivals, and now we’re booking and promoting our own shows in smaller theatres and clubs. 
When I was last in the US, I worked with some guys who had their own bands. Their stuff was good, too - proper music making, good ideas, all that. . But when I asked them about gigs, the reaction was pretty defeatist: 'We can only get gigs doing covers'. This was in a town 20 miles outside of New York, which is one of the most exciting music cities on the planet! 
There’s a lot of competition. A lot of venues just want a band to turn up and play for four hours, to entertain the customers in the bar. That means covers. 
You had to do those gigs to start with? 
So that means you can handle a crowd? 
Yeah.  And if not, that Les Paul I play is pretty heavy! I can only speak of my experience. There’s partly an attitude at the venues of turn up and play and keep the customers happy. It’s a shame, because many of the bands are worth that 20, 25 dollar ticket price, and can put on a great show. But they often don’t get the opportunity. 
Stage right, all in white - JST with Annie Lennox at the Queen's Jubilee 
Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the best US musicians can hit those amazing heights of skill and intuition – they’ve done those hard shifts; they’ve put in the hours. Susan Tedeschi is approaching superstar status these days with the stupendously skilled Tedeschi Trucks Band. But she, too, started her career scrapping in tough venues, banging out killer sets for hours at a time to keep the punters happy. Survive that, keep your eyes on the prize, and who know what may comes your way? 

It’s ironic that the USA, the home of so many brilliant genres of music that we in the UK regard with awe and respect, is so often so difficult a place for musicians to make their  way… But it also holds a welcome that we in the UK simply don’t seem to be able to offer. 

See also
Toy Hearts head for the epicentre of Western Swing

Gigs and Links
Joanne Shaw Taylor plays Birmingham Town Hall on November 29th.
Her full US/UK/Europe list is 
Joanne Shaw Taylor'website

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