The rule has always been that if you’re a woman and you want to play the blues, you’d better be a good singer. Fiona Boyes is a fine singer, gritty and soulful and comfortable in many styles, but she is a much better guitar player. In fact, you might have to reach all the way back to Memphis Minnie to find a similarly skillful axe-woman. Or you could forget the whole gender game, because it’s a dead end. Fiona Boyes can play with anyone, male or female, Australian or Delta-born, traditionalist or modern blues interpreter. She’s the real thing.
You don’t have to take my word for that. She’s a winner of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge, and she’s played at nearly every major blues festival in the U.S., as well as those in her native Australia. She’s also good enough to attract a strong team, too, Bob Margolin (who once played with Muddy Waters) on guitar, pianist Marcia Ball and saxophonist Kaz Kazanoff. It’s a very solid band, led but not overwhelmed by Boyes, and one of the joys of this record is when the supporting players cut loose. Sure, “Red Hot Kisses” showcases Boyes’ eerie slide guitar and sultry voice, but it would be half the song without Margolin’s soft mournful singing and the intricate interplay between their two guitars. And similarly, “Big Bigger Biggest” wouldn’t swing at all without the big band heft of Kazanoff’s Texas Horns or the incendiary piano solo mid-cut.
The songs are quite varied. “Chicken Wants Corn” has the electric swagger of Muddy Waters, while “Stranger in Your Eyes” smoulders with Southern heat, a distaff take on Robert Cray. “Rockabilly on the Radio”, a cut borrowed from Jack Smith and the Rockabilly Planet, is exactly as hip-shakingly rocking as you’d expect, while “Good Lord Makes You So”, slouches and whispers with swampy authenticity. And what can you make of the wonderful “Celebrate My Curves”, written by fellow Aussie blueswoman Lil’ Fi, except that it’s good to be a woman of voracious appetites and damn the consequences.
The centerpiece though is Boyes guitarwork, which smokes and caresses, insinuates and stomps. From the slow-rocking riffery of “Chicken Wants Corn”, through the very last bend and pull-off on “Homesick Blues”, Boyes makes her guitar talk in an amazing range of dialects, distinct in themselves, but all part of the greater language of blues. Her work is never show-off-y, as is sometimes true of technically adept players, but rather seems to sing. There are notes in “Good Lord Makes You So” that hang in the air like smoke, twisting and evolving even as they fade. It’s a virtuouso display, but one that works in favor of the song.
It’s a man world, truly, but there’s always been room for another great guitar player. So move over boys and watch your language. Fiona Boyes will be staying quite a while.