The Ice Queen, released 2 March, represents Sue Foley’s coming of age as a a singer, songwriter and guitarist. It is particularly appropriate
that this, her best album to date, was recorded with the support of her
long-time colleagues Charlie Sexton,
Jimmie Vaughan and Billy
(of ZZ Top) at the Firestation
studios in San Marcos, just south of Austin, where she first started recording several
decades ago as a budding blues guitarist and singer. In this sense, Foley has
come full circle, but with one important difference this time round: she is now
undisputably up there with the great blues artists of our time.
It is a testament to Foley’s status in the blues community that her other contributors reads like a who’s who of the Austin music scene: guitarist Derek O’Brien; organist Mike Flanigin (who also produces the record); horn players Randy Zimmerman, ‘Kaz’ Kazanoff, Al Gomez, Jimmy Shortell and John Mills; and drummers Chris Layton, JJ Johnson, and George Rains (who Foley recently described to Guitars Exchange as one of the best blues drummers ever). But if there is any doubt who the person is in charge here, this is a clue: she’s wearing a pink paisley Telecaster.
Foley has either written or co-written 10 of the 12 tracks on the album, which kicks off with the strident ‘Come to me’. Her own great guitar solo on this track is complemented by Charlie Sexton on slide, with both complementing each other’s smouldering vocals.
This leads into ‘81’, which on the most literal level is about the treacherous road that stretches from Ontario to Tennessee. “She’s a two-headed snake, and she winds her tail, from the mighty Appalachians to the gates of Hell” she sings; and she should know as she used to drive it all the time. “I would always dread it,” she says, and the dread is well-reflected in her and Sexton’s carefully-crafted guitar sparring.
Following the jaunty ‘Run’, comes the outstanding title track ‘The Ice Queen’, which at well over six minutes long gives time for Foley’s rich guitar playing and smokey vocals to shine. “The last man I let in, well he tore me right apart […] old man winter put a lock on my heart” she sings, as she explains why she is now ‘the Ice Queen […] so cool and detached’. “This track is every blues fan’s dream” says Vents magazine, and it is hard to disagree.
Jimmie Vaughan features on the rocking blues number ‘The Lucky Ones’, playing guitar and singing in duet with Foley. Mike Flanigin adds some nice touches on what is believed to be a B3 Hammond organ.
Later, Foley recruits Billy Gibbons to add his gravel voice and harmonica to ‘Fool’s Gold’, creating a grittily enchanting tune.
Much more is in store, however, as the album surpisingly ends with a number of acoustic tracks. Perhaps more than any other track, ‘The Dance’ demonstrates the Foley is never going to sit on her laurels, as over the last few years she has challenged herself to learn flamenco guitar, and this gem is one result. Here she leaves her thumbpick aside and uses just her fingers to find something that is still Foley, but entirely new.
The album closes with another acoustic number - this time with country touches - on a cover of AP Carter’s ‘Cannonball blues’.
‘The Ice Queen’ is Foley’s eleventh album and features an artist who is both at the peak of her career and still eagerly seeking to grow.