Music News & Reviews

She's compared to Janis, but she's more like Bonnie

You might say Susan Tedeschi is accustomed to having things both ways.

As a guitarist, songwriter and, especially, vocalist, she helms a band that draws from blues, soul and gospel inspirations absorbed in her youth. The music she forged first won over club audiences in her native New England before breaking through to national prominence with a gold-selling album (2000's Just Won't Burn) and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist alongside such unlikely competitors as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray and Kid Rock.

But Tedeschi is also very much a family gal. She married fellow guitarist Derek Trucks in 2001 and is now mother to two children, ages 3 and 6. While Tedeschi and Trucks maintain prolific careers of their own, they occasionally combine forces on the road with their respective bands for loose-fitting, revue-style performances dubbed the Soul Stew Revival.

But the question at hand is what musical stew will Tedeschi cook up when she performs in Lexington on Tuesday. While she sat in with Trucks at several of his concerts at the long-defunct Lynagh's Music Club around the time Just Won't Burn heated up, she has never performed a full concert of her own here.

So what's on the menu? Tunes from Just Won't Burn and 2006's extraordinary Joe Henry-produced covers album Hope and Desire? Or maybe the debut of a mountain of new original works that have been simmering in the home studio she and Trucks built in their current hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.

The answer by now should be obvious: both.

”A lot of the new songs are really cool in that they're a lot like Just Won't Burn, but better,“ Tedeschi said. ”The music is blues based, but some of the songs are old timey blues and jazz. So we'll be playing a lot of the new stuff, probably.

”But then, I've never played Lexington. So I should play the old stuff, maybe? No, a little bit of both. That's what we're gonna do.“

Finding the voice

A native of Norwell, Mass., Tedeschi attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she also sang in a gospel choir. Though she formed her first bands in high school, the first unit officially dubbed the Susan Tedeschi Band came to life in 1994.

”Music has always been this universal voice for me,“ Tedeschi said. ”I've always done much better writing and speaking through lyrics than I do speaking on the phone or in conversation. That's true even today. My husband is so eloquent. I hear him do interviews on the phone all day and think, "Gosh, I wish I could speak like that.'“

But Tedeschi's voice developed soon enough. As a guitarist, her playing is buoyed by a blues aroma that breezes up from the Delta, through the dusty plains of Texas and into the molten electricity of Chicago. As a singer, she possesses a sweaty, worldly realism. Tedeschi has been regularly compared by critics to Janis Joplin, which is misleading. Listen to Hope and Desire and the patient, open phrasing Tedeschi gives to the golden Rolling Stones relic You Got the Silver, the Bob Dylan obscurity Lord Protect My Child and the earthy Iris DeMent delight Sweet Forgiveness and you discover a link to the warmer, more seasoned music of Bonnie Raitt. But Tedeschi laughs when asked if an artist or recording came along in her youth that changed her blooming musical profile.

”You know what? That happened about 20 times. For real.“

First were the singers — great soul voices like Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway. Next came the blues guitar giants: Magic Sam, Freddie King and Otis Rush. She also maintained a love of great folk and pop songwriting from Bob Dylan and John Lennon. And then there was gospel.

”Aretha and Mahalia Jackson just changed my whole approach to singing,“ Tedeschi said. ”I had been singing so much country and folk. But then it became more like soul music, gospel and real blues. And the real blues didn't really hit until after college when I started listening to the old Chicago guys like Muddy (Waters) and Jimmy Rogers.

”That was when the music really took on a whole new shape. I think it really defined where I ended up going. After that, I finally felt like I had a voice that I could universally relate to, a voice that let me feel confident and excited enough to sing.

”The blues really helped shape that. It gave me a good foundation. It gave me good roots.“

Away from home

As she prepares for another tour, the checks and balances of a personal life and a professional career weigh in. Sure, Tedeschi and Trucks get to share time onstage as well as at home. But it never seems like enough. And then there is the very everyday reality of being one of two working parents whose office happens to be a bus that is almost constantly in motion.

”Derek just left yesterday after being home for almost three months. That's the longest he's ever been home because he is almost always on tour (in addition to his own group, Trucks is a mainstay member of the Allman Brothers Band and has also been a guest member of Eric Clapton's band). The hardest thing about it is he will be gone now for another month.

”Being a musician myself, I feel guilty whenever I have to get up and leave myself. Leaving the kids to go on tour… some of these things can be heard.

”But then again, Derek is doing great with all of his projects. I'm really proud of him. And I'm looking forward to going out playing all these new songs. So really, I'm very lucky. It's tough, sometimes, sure. But I feel very, very blessed.“