Making music that moves

Susan Tedeschi, who plays Rams Head Live on Saturday, stretches the blues genre on her 12-song cover album

Music

October 13, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

THE LADY SINGS the blues. But Susan Tedeschi says she wants to do more than just perform them.

"I'm loving this music and exposing it to people," says the singer-songwriter-musician, who's calling from her home in Jacksonville, Fla. "That's the history of America there. I feel like I need to learn as much as I can and grow and try to keep the blues alive. This music shouldn't be forgotten."

Tedeschi, who plays Rams Head Live on Saturday night, stretches the genre on Hope and Desire, her new album and first on the Verve Forecast label, in stores this week. The 12-song set is a collection of covers, studded with reinvigorated classics from the songbooks of Percy Mayfield ("The Danger Zone"), Stevie Wonder ("Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever"), Bob Dylan ("Lord Protect My Child") and others.

With the exception that none of her own compositions appear on the CD, Hope and Desire isn't too different from her previous three albums. Musically, Tedeschi blends classic R&B sounds with country-fried blues and gospel overtones. At times, her rough-edged, full-throttle vocal approach brings Janis Joplin and early Bonnie Raitt to mind. But Tedeschi says her main influence is Mahalia Jackson.

"For me, gospel is the truest soulful music," says the artist, 34.

While studying at the Berklee College of Music, the Boston native fell into a new world of music, discovering the sounds of Jackson and many other greats in black music. She joined the school's gospel choir, singing alongside Donny Hathaway's daughters, Lalah and Kenya.

"I was mostly sheltered musically growing up," Tedeschi says. "But then I met friends at Berklee who introduced me to people like Otis Rush, Freddie King, Jimmy Reed, amazing stuff. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard this great music before. I felt like I had missed out on so much."

After she graduated in 1991, the performer began working around Boston's active blues scene and eventually assembled a band. The group soon started touring the national blues circuit, playing mostly in the Midwest and the South. The Susan Tedeschi Band debut, Just Won't Burn, appeared in early 1998 on the Boston-based Tone-Cool label. An energetic mix of original tunes and '50s R&B covers, the record garnered critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination. Before releasing the follow-up, 2002's classy, Tom Dowd-produced Wait for Me, Tedeschi married guitarist Derek Trucks and had a baby girl, Sophia. (The two had a son, Charlie, last year.)

On Hope and Desire, Tedeschi worked with respected producer Joe Henry, who prominently places her urgent vocals and fine slide guitar playing in uncluttered arrangements that feel warm and lived in. The song selections may come from different style bags but they all pulsate with funky, down-home blues, including the more gospel-oriented "Magnificent Sanctuary Band," a remake of a Donny Hathaway tune featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama. "The Danger Zone," made famous by Ray Charles, is given a stark, dark mix with lots of reverb.

About covering the various tunes on Hope and Desire, Tedeschi says, "Interpreting others' songs is harder because obviously you haven't written the songs. You don't want to sing it note for note like the person who wrote it or recorded it first. You want to put your own style on it. But you want to do it justice, too."

The artist smartly tailors each cut to her own sound, inhabiting such emotional gems as "Share Your Love With Me," a blues ballad that was originally done by Bobby Bland in 1964 but became a No. 1 R&B hit for Aretha Franklin five years later.

"Most of my songs are rooted in blues and soul music," Tedeschi says. "I'll sing anything that's got heart to it - music that moves people."

See Susan Tedeschi at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Saturday night at 9. Tickets are $25 in advance or $28 at the door. For more information, call 410-244-8854 or visit ramsheadlive.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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