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Review: Joanna Connor takes her blues guitar down new paths

Joanna Connor, "Rise" (M.C. Records) Joanna Connor takes her powerful guitar down new paths on "Rise," an album featuring some jazzier hues, her considerable acoustic skills and even a guest rapper while also doubling down on her reputation as a blues stalwart.

Connor, based in Chicago, released 2016's "Six String Stories" after a long break from studio recording even as she enhanced her status thanks to live performances. "Rise" is also characterized by a new backing band, "a bunch of younger men" credited by Connor for an extra dose of power, and several instrumentals, from the smooth tones of the title track to a cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay" featuring cracking solos from everyone involved.

Funky album opener "Flip" is a steamy take on what sounds like a May-September romance — "A woman can't live on guitar alone" — while "Mutha" features rapper Alphonso BuggZ Dinero toasting Connor with a dose of humor as she mercilessly shreds the strings.

"My Irish Father" is a galloping, Rory Gallagher-like acoustic showcase with poignancy added by Connor's discovery not long ago of her birth father's identity. "Cherish and Worship You" is probably the most rocking track on the album and "Earthshaker" is a glowing tribute to a Windy City bass player with some very special skills.

Intense closer "Dear America" combines an homage to Led Zeppelin's take on "When the Levee Breaks" with a topical dissertation by Dinero as Connor's dramatic vocals and fiery fret work, along with powerful work from drummer Tyrone Mitchell, provide an alarming soundtrack to a catalog of political ills and social challenges.

Connor describes herself as "that middle-aged lady with the scorching guitar" and "Rise" is a monumental testament to her skills.

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