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A chat with Joanne Shaw Taylor

October 19, 2012

This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for my full time employer, Reuters:

Rock and blues fans who missed out on hearing Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan in their heyday could have done worse than listen to a 21st century incarnation in London recently.  Thumping chords and wailing guitar runs enraptured an audience at the Leicester Square Theatre  in much the the same way that those of the late “rock gods” used to.

Only this performance came from a goddess – Joanne Shaw Taylor – a 27-year old Detroit-based Englishwoman whose musical style and audacious guitar skills can easily cause a double-take on the part of those who stumble upon her unprepared. A gravelly blues voice and long, flailing blonde hair add to the feeling that something here does not quite fit the “axe-man” mould carved out by Hendrix, Vaughan, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page or Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones.

Female blues-rock guitarists, after all, are few and far between – particularly if they were born in the mid-1980s and can mesmerise their listeners with a version of Hendrix’s  “Manic Depression”, giving the original a run for its money.

“There are not so many women playing the guitar,” Shaw Taylor told Reuters before going on stage. “Along with the drums, it is an aggressive, masculine instrument.” Asked to name women guitar virtuosi, she came up with a short list that included Susan Tedeschi, Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt. Respectively, they are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Shaw Taylor says this may be changing.  She has noted that fathers are bringing their young daughters to see her concerts.

She picked up her first guitar when she was aged 6, attracted by the playing of her brother and own father, who favoured the likes of heavy rockers Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. When she later heard Vaughan, the Texan cult guitarist who died in a 1990 helicopter crash and was known for his frenetic electric riffs and runs, she was smitten.

Her first two albums were almost pure blues-rock. The latest – “Almost Always Never” – veers more to straight rock. “I didn’t see any sense in making the same album twice,” she said.  She is featuring it on a British tour in which she is backed up by a tight trio of drums, keyboards and bass.

Shaw Taylor, who has tours planned next year in New Zealand and Canada, already has a solid following among blues-rock fans and a growing reputation beyond that.

She has now moved on from blues clubs to theatre-sized venues and in June she got a wider, global airing at the star-studded concert held outside Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. Scottish singer Annie Lennox, whom she had not seen for about a decade when Shaw Taylor worked with Lennox’s ex-Eurythmics partner Dave Stewart, rang her on short notice to back her up. “That was chaos,” Shaw Taylor said, of the rapid change of plans and performance preparation.

Lennox sang “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)” wearing a large pair of angel wings. So too did Shaw Taylor when she stepped forward for a solo to probably the biggest audience she has ever had.

Her mother insisted that she bring the wings home on the train for her niece – sweet, but not very rock and roll even if you can play like Hendrix.

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