Sue Foley may call herself the Ice Queen, but she recently played smoking hot blues at The Hamilton Live in DC. A dazzling guitarist, great songwriter, and fine singer, she has an infectious passion for music, and everyone in the audience caught her disease.
A native of Ottawa, Ontario, Foley grew up in “a family of guitar players. All my older brothers and my dad played, so I knew I would, too.” She got bit by the guitar bug in her teens, and, by her early 20s, she was touring. While sitting in with guitarist and singer-songwriter Duke Robillard, she was discovered by Clifford Antone, owner of the Austin blues club and associated label Antone’s, leading her to first album, 1992’s Young Girl Blues.
For most of her career, Foley has been based out of Austin, though she has returned, at times, to her native Canada. Though she hasn’t spent most of her career up there, her homeland has shown her a lot of love. In 2001, she won a Juno award for her album Blues Coming Down. She’s also won 17 Maple Blues Awards. Outside of Canada, she won the Blues Music Awards Traditional Blues Female award in 2020 and 2023.
“I grew up in the era of the guitar god, but I always wanted to find the women who played,” Foley told the audience at The Hamilton Live on Nov. 1, name-checking Nancy Wilson of Heart and Bonnie Raitt, who “came later.” Foley’s interest in the history of women guitarists led to another aspect of her career, the Guitar Women historical project, for which she’s interviewed dozens of female guitarists, women like Etta Baker, who was 90 years when they talked and jammed together.
Watch Sue Foley perform “Run” at the 2023 New Orleans Jazzfest on YouTube:
The project culminates in a book that will be out next year, and will be required reading for anyone interested in the history of popular music. She’s also releasing a companion album, One Guitar Woman, with just Sue and her Spanish guitar playing songs from her influences like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elizabeth Presti.
While she mostly plays gritty electric guitar, Foley can also get real pretty with an acoustic. Part-way through the show, the band took a break and Sue switched to her Spanish guitar to play Elizabeth Cotten’s “It Ain’t No Lie, Babe.” She provided the historical context surrounding Cotten, a Piedmont fingerstyle player who was discovered while working as the housekeeper for the Seeger family and didn’t start recording until she she was in her 50s.
Perhaps surprisingly, Foley counts the Spanish musician and entertainer Charo among her influences. Foley expressed her admiration for the Spaniard as an entertainer and comedienne, but above all, as a guitarist. When she played guitar, Foley said, Charo was “transformed,” and she revealed her soul. In her version of the Spanish classical guitar piece “Malagueña,” Charo mixed the classical style with flamenco she learned from Gypsies. That’s how Foley played it Wednesday.
Sue is also releasing a companion album, One Guitar Woman, playing only her Spanish guitar in covers of songs from her influences like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elizabeth Presti.
One Guitar Woman follows Foley’s latest release, Live In Austin, vol. 1, which came out earlier this. “We made it for the fans,” she said, explaining that she kept getting asked why, in 30 years of making records, she’d never made a live album. “I wanted to make something rocking, something fun, some you’d put on in your card and get a speeding ticket,” she told the crowd. She opened with two songs that appear on the album, “New Used Car” and “Walking Home.”
Watch the official music video for “Walking Home” by Sue Foley on YouTube:
After “Howlin’ for My Darlin’,” Foley and her band — Cory Keller on drums and John Penner on bass — played the first of the evening’s two instrumentals, “Hooked On Love.” Later, they covered Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp.” She introduced Angela Strehli’s “Say It Ain’t So” saying “We’re gonna slow it down, catch our breath.”
Cory and John returned to the stage after the solo interlude, playing “The Ice Queen,” “Fool’s Gold,” and “Dallas Man.” Of the last, Sue said, “I wrote this song about all the great Dallas guitar players.” The set was rounded out with “The Barefoot Rock,” which got the audience involved, and “Hurricane Girl.”
Before Sue and her band took the stage, local blues artist Bobby Thompson opened the show. His set was notable for the Hawaiian lap steel guitar he played on several numbers. “I don’t know to play it like a Hawaiian lap steel guitar,” he said, “so I play it like a dobro.” He wrote “My Everything” about eight years ago, when he was on the the road, following a hard conversation with his partner. When he later told her the title, she said, “That sounds like a nice song,” to which he replied, “It’s Not.”
This was my first time seeing Foley live, though she’s been on my radar for years. I love her music, and she’s a dynamite live act, a real sparkplug. If you like blues — heck, even if you just like great guitar work — you owe it to yourself to check out her music and catch her when she’s in your town.