Chicago’s Kingston Mines serves up the blues

Reid Stratton

I had the opportunity to spend reading period checking out a couple of blues clubs in Chicago, and I was lucky enough to end up at Kingston Mines, one of the city’s oldest blues clubs.
Kingston Mines, at 2548 N. Halstead, is essentially a two-room club that features two bands every night. The bands take turns, one in each room, playing hour-long sets so that the music is literally non-stop for seven and a half hours. There is a bar in each room and a kitchen that serves standard bar food all night. They have live music every night of the week from 9:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. (and until 5 a.m. on Saturday), which is a ton of music any way you slice it. The only catch is the $15 cover, but you can even get around that: college students get in free Sunday through Wednesday.
I was at Kingston Mines last Saturday, when the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings were headlining and the Joanna Connor Band was second on the bill. The Blues Kings were a good but unremarkable band, but the Joanna Connor Band absolutely rocked the place. Joanna, by all accounts a big momma, took the first set. She let it rip with her first flurry of notes and didn’t quit for the rest of the night. Joanna herself is a double-whammy: a stellar guitarist with a solid, mellow voice. The immediate comparison that comes to mind is Deborah Coleman, another mean female guitarist, but I’m convinced Joanna could whup Coleman in a firefight any day.
Joanna’s guitar sound, however, is far from traditional. On many of her longer solos, she drifted pretty far into heavy metal territory, playing licks that might have come straight from a Guns N’ Roses song. Though it seems odd to have that sound in a straight-ahead blues band, Joanna’s sound comes off smacking of Jimi Hendrix even amidst the blues setting.
As for her voice, Joanna solidly leads the vocals without the deep throatiness that is common in a lot of big female blues singers (think Shemekia Copland). Her voice is actually pretty playful and always very natural sounding, often reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. For the most part, though, Joanna lets her guitar do the talking.
Of course, no good lead-woman is worth a cent without a good band, and Joanna is blessed in that field. Every member of her band – guitarist Toronzo Cannon, bassist J.R. Fuller, drummer Lance Lewis, and an unidentified sax player – was a soloist, but all of them fit together as tightly as a jigsaw puzzle. While Joanna got most of the spotlight, once or twice per set the band would get a round of solos, and they just blew the audience away. The bassist in particular showed an incredible mastery of his instrument, utilizing a dozen different techniques, from slap style to strumming and beyond. The drummer, while not nearly as flashy as the others, was a joy to listen to – you could set your watch by his backbeat. As for the rhythm guitarist, the best I can do is to describe one of his solos: he was on his knees and playing the guitar with his teeth, his face three inches away from Joanna’s pelvis. You can’t make that stuff up.
In short, the Joanna Connor Band was the highlight of my trip, besting all the headliners I saw during the weekend. The good news is that they’re one of the house bands at Kingston Mines: you can see them every Tuesday and once every couple of weekends. Joanna also plays every Monday at The House of Blues on 329 N. Dearborn, but Kingston Mines is a more exciting venue. Joanna has several albums out on Blind Pig records, all of which can be purchased at www.blindpigrecords.com
So please, all you Chicago suburbanites, the next time you go home for the weekend, stop by Kingston Mines. I can’t imagine $15 that could be better spent. And please take me with you.
Visit www.kingstonmines.com for schedules and more information.

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