Happy Blues

Sue Foley goes where the action is

Rating: NNNNN

Her last album nabbed her a Juno and a handful of Maple Blues Awards. She’s got a great son and has resettled happily in her home and native land. Her career’s on track and her newest disc is already winning critical raves.Canadian blues guitar dynamo Sue Foley’s life is pretty good right now. But don’t expect her to stop singing the blues.

“The blues are just about drawing on your own personal expression,” she laughs softly. “You can sing blues about being happy if you want.”

Foley’s new record, Where The Action Is, is considerably cheerier than her last effort, 2000’s lauded Love Comin’ Down. While the latter disc was made during a stressful divorce from the father of her son, Foley says Where The Action Is reflects the moods of someone who definitely wasn’t going through torment this time.

The album’s a stellar assortment of raw, rootsy tunes ranging from the stunning Delta lurch of Two Bluebirds to a gritty, gender-bending cover of the Stones’ Stupid Girl and the Motown-tinged Baby Where Are You?

The 30-something Foley started performing at age 16, even then drawing comparisons to legends like Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. In the early 90s, blues guru Clifford Antone, head of the respected Antones label, caught one of her shows and invited her to move down to Austin, Texas.

“I think it was the best thing I ever did,” offers Foley. “It was definitely necessary for my sound. You can only get an authentic Southern sound by living down South. I still yearn to be back there the odd winter.”

She moved back home to Ottawa in 1997 to raise her son with family close by, but her music hasn’t lost that down home feel. A couple of tracks — particularly the swampy, country-tinged Two Bluebirds and a Delta-inspired cover of Down The Big Road Blues — have stripped-down, faded vocals and effortless phrasing that are eerily evocative of Alan Lomax’s archival Library of Congress folk recordings. Foley says that came naturally.

“I’ve been influenced by that stuff since I was 16, so I suppose it’s just seeped into my consciousness. I feel most comfortable with stuff from that era. Two Bluebirds, which is my own tune, is my way of appropriating that idiom into my own personal style. Colin was brought up on that stuff, too, but we didn’t talk about trying for that effect at all — it just happened. I definitely couldn’t sing pop songs today — that’s for sure!”

Before she started singing the blues, the teenage Foley immersed herself in the explosive energy of punk music and early British Invasion bands. So why start out playing complex blues runs instead of basic DIY punk?

“It was just because of a yearning, I guess. I’d gone to a bunch of punk shows, but when I saw my first blues show it was a totally different experience. The blues were so much heavier — almost unbearably heavy when I was a teenager. I didn’t even consider playing anything else.”

She says her dream collaborators would include Keith Richards, Memphis Minnie, Earl Hooker and Van Morrison. Today she’s also digging Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In fact, that she invited Wilco’s former percussionist, Ken Coomer, to do drum duty on Where The Action Is.

“I love his playing,” effuses Foley. “I personally think they were crazy to let him go. He’s such a soulful player, and you can’t teach someone how to capture that.”wuzzlet@hotmail.com

SUE FOLEY with J.J. Cale at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Friday (July 5) at 7 pm. $22.50. 416-870-8000.

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