CHICAGO — On a Friday night at the legendary Lincoln Park blues bar Kingston Mines, the searing sound of Chicago’s signature music pours out onto Halsted Street.
Inside, the crowds gather to watch bluesmen dressed in fedoras and sunglasses and deliver the hard-driving rhythms that reverberate across the hard-edged city.
But on one stage, there is an anomaly.
“I’m a mom,” Joanna Connor said. “I look like a mom. I don’t fit the image, you know?”
But when Connor, a a veteran blues musician known as Chicago’s Queen of the Blues Guitar, steps onto the stage, it doesn’t take long to figure out she’s exactly where she should be.
“She plays guitar like no other woman I’ve ever seen,” the co-owner of Kingston Mines Laura Gennaro said.
At one recent performance, the audience was mesmerized by her precision, speed and the commanding skill with which she plays, providing a show within a show.
“Her fingers? It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Amber Lee said.
Lee watched Connor’s 90-minute set from a back table in Kingston Mines.
“The performance resembled sleight-of-hand or magic,” Michael Rodriguez said. “You’re watching and you’re trying to figure out, like, how exactly she does it.”
At age 19, Connor arrived in Chicago in 1984, enthralled by the chance to learn blues music from the legends.
“I was in heaven,” Connor said. “A lot of the greats were still playing: Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Son Seals, Lonnie brooks, and of course Buddy Guy, who is still with us.”
Connor said she learned under blues giant Dion Payton, who brought her on as a member of the house band at the storied Checkerboard Lounge.
“He was tough on me,” she said. “I called him ‘the football coach.’ He’s like ‘What are you doing?!’ Yelling, but it was good. At the time, sometimes, it irritated me. But he expected perfection out of me. So he was a great foundation for me.”
Under his demanding watch, she became a technician with a certain tenacity, able to play with tenderness and emotion as well as ferocity and power.
“I want that guitar to feel like an extension of myself,” she said. “I want to know I can shut my eyes and play slide.”
In 2014 a clip of her performance of “Walking Blues” went viral, earning more than 1.5 million views online.
Even Slash, the acclaimed guitarist of Guns & Roses, took notice.
“He put me on his Instagram page,” she said. “I’m like ‘Oh cool!’”
She’s toured the world and recorded her own albums, but her home — both physical and spiritual — is Chicago’s Kingston Mines.
“It a melting pot of people, the late nights,” she said. “It had a lot of character – and it still does. I went to the Chicago blues school. I’m proud of that and I’m really overjoyed that the city has shown me so much love.”
Footage of Dion Payton’s “All Your Affection Is Gone” music video shown in the WGN report was produced, conceived and paid for by Colleen McNichols.