BLUES IN MY HEART / BOYES: Blues in My Heart. She Could Play That Thing. I Let the Blues In. Have Faith. Honey You Can Take My Man. My Say So. Two-Legged Dog. That Certain Something. Hokum Rag. Hotel Room. LEADBELLY: Pig Meat. KID BAILEY: Rowdy Blues. G. DAVIS: Mean Blues. R. HODGES: Angel. J.B. LENOIR: Mercy. T. JOHNSON: Canned Heat / Fiona Boyes, gtr/voc; Kaz Dalla Rosa, harmonica; Gina Woods, pno; Paula Dowse, dm.perc / Reference Recordings FR-740
Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to “discover” a great talent before most other have heard of him or her—such was my luck with conductor John Nelson, soprano Kathleen Battle and a few others—but because I am not for the most part a blues aficionado, I sometimes come late to the party. Such was the case for me with Ottilie Patterson, the astonishing Irish blues singer who could hold her own with the best black artists, and now such is the case with Fiona Boyes.
The great Australian blues guitarist-singer has been around since the mid-1980s, when she won (to her surprise) an “open mic” amateur night at a Melbourne pub and has been a major performing and recording artist since the early 1990s, often with her own all-woman Mojo Blues Band. I had seen this album in the Naxos New Release catalog but passed it by because of my bad experience with far too many female “jazz” and “blues” singers who whisper their songs in a sexy come-hither style which completely turns me off. But when I saw this album listed on the Naxos Jazz Music Library, I clicked on it and took a chance—and boy, am I glad I did!
Boyes, who plays both acoustic and electric guitar, covering pre-war Delta blues, single-chord Mississippi Hills, Piedmont finger picking, New Orleans barrelhouse and Texas swing styles, is the real deal. Famed blues and rock pianist Joe “Pinetop” Perkins (1913-2011) once said that Boyes was “the best gal guitarist I heard since Memphis Minnie.” The comparison is fully justified and, on this CD, she sings one song dedicated to Minnie (She Could Play That Thing).
But if she’s been playing and recording professionally for 30 years, why is this album designated a “20th Anniversary Edition”? Because, as it turns out, these recordings were made in two days during September 2000 for Blue Empress Records. And it’s a honey of an album. I listened to a few of Boyes’ other albums on Reference Recordings, and one thing I didn’t care much for was that they had a bit too much reverb for such an intimate form as vocal and blues guitar. This one has crisp, clean sound, which helps one appreciate Boyes’ artistry in better detail.
Boyes plays acoustic guitar exclusively on this album, but that’s fine by me; except for Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elmore James, I’m not really big on electric blues guitar. It also surprised me, as a newcomer to her, how many songs she writes herself. On this particular album, only six songs were written by others, and on some of her other CDs nearly every song is written by Boyes.
As in the case of Ottilie Patterson, it’s not just that she sings (and in her case plays) the blues but that she manages to do so in a style that sounds black. This is no mean feat. I’ve heard several white blues singers and/or guitarists who never get the loose feel of black performers, but Boyes could fit right in with the best of them. She alternates between chords and a walking bass line with consummate ease, there is nothing “precious” or artificial-sounding about her performances. She can also modulate her voice between a rather sweet sound and one with plenty of gravel in it. Like Patterson, her sense of rhythm sounds perfectly natural, not forced. Small wonder that she won that open-mic amateur night way back when. The audience was probably floored by her.
And, I might add, she sounds American in every respect. If you can detect any trace of an Aussie accent in her singing, I’d like to know about it. For those of you who hold a condescending view towards the best blues artists, I’d like to hear you try to do it. I’ll bet you $20 you’d fall flat on your face. It’s not at all easy to play and sing like Fiona Boyes, to have all that talent and technique and make it sound as simple as falling out of bed. There are plenty of videos on YouTube by white blues artists who have the technique but not the looseness, or have the looseness but not the right style. Everything has to work together in order for your performances to click as perfectly as hers do. For an ideal example of what I mean, listen to Honey You Can Take My Man. Not even Leon Redbone, who was awfully good, sounded this loose and natural when doing blues tunes.
If I weren’t so late to the party, I’d definitely give this my “What a Performance” award. It’s that good.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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