Sue Foley’s stunning guitar licks make for a killer night of Texas blues at the Rio

michele gare photo

By Steve Newton

When I did my first interview with Sue Foley, back in 1992, she was 23 years old and about to play a show at the Commodore Ballroom as part of the Antone’s Women Blues Revue, which saw her in the company of blues belters Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Lavelle White, and Barbara Lynn.

Last night (September 7) at the Rio Theatre Foley took the stage with just her trio–bassist Jon Penner and drummer Corey Keller–but the presence of a couple of those Antones’ Women could be felt in the house. That’s because Foley’s setlist included a couple of tracks off her latest album, Pinky’s Blues, that were written by Strehli (“Say It’s Not So”) and White (“Stop These Teardrops”).

But the most memorable thing about Foley’s 75-minute performance wasn’t so much the songs–or even the singing–but the startling guitarwork on display. She kicked things off with the instrumental title track off Pinky’s Blues, and it was clear from the get-go that it was gonna be a good night for the guitar freaks in attendance.

Rather than use a traditional flat pick, Foley opts for a thumb pick to compliment her three-finger playing style, and the results are astounding. When you hear her go to town on her pink paisley Fender Telecaster it’s obvious why primo pickers like Jimmie Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi have been happy to trade licks with her in recent years.

Foley’s brand of Texas blues is pure, straightforward, and honest, inspired as it is by the spirit of her biggest influence, Memphis Minnie, the trailblazing singer-songwriter and guitar ace who recorded back in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

“She played lead guitar and she wrote all her own songs,” Foley told me in a 2001 interview. “When I first heard her I was about 16, and she struck me as like the female Robert Johnson.”

Between songs at the Rio last night Foley announced that she was working on an album that paid tribute to Memphis Minnie–as well as other early female blues pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elizabeth Cotton. Now there’s something dedicated blues fans can look forward to.

After a set that included six or seven tracks from Pinky’s Blues–including the Clarence Gatemouth Brown raveup, “Okie Dokie Stomp”, which got the dancers up–Foley invited esteemed local guitarist Tim Hearsey up for a two song-encore. Hearsey–whose quartet, the Grand Koolios, had opened the show–is an old friend of Foley’s from when she moved to Vancouver from Ottawa, before taking residence in Austin, Texas in the early ’90s.

To hear those two gifted pickers wailing away together on a classic Texas shuffle made me pine for the good ol’ days of the Yale Hotel, where they used to jam together whenever they could. Man I miss that place. Luckily there’s venues like the Rio that have been taking up the slack and bringing in blues-based acts like Sonny Landreth and the North Mississippi Allstars over the years.

Special thanks to local blues legend and entrepreneur Dave Chisholm of Dave’s Rock Shop for promoting and emceeing the gig.

To hear the full audio of my 1992 interview with Sue Foley subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can listen to more than 400 of my other uncut, one-on-one interviews with the legends of rock and blues.

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