Internalizing the Blues
The shadow of Janis Joplin has been following Susan Tedeschi for almost as long as she can remember.
"I have known who Janis was ever since I was little," Tedeschi says. "I mean, believe it or not, I've always had that comparison ever since I was little ... See, the whole thing is I grew up in an area where everyone was into Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and the Stones and Pink Floyd, all the standard English and American rock bands. And they'd say, 'Gosh, maybe you are Janis because she died like the same month you were born.' That used to be the big joke. Everyone used to always think that Janis's spirit came through me or something."
These days most people merely say Tedeschi sings a bit like Joplin, especially when she lets her voice go full throttle. Some prime examples of such moments on Tedeschi's national debut CD, Just Won't Burn, are the soulful rocker "It Hurts So Bad" and the hard-hitting "Rock Me Right."
Tedeschi (pronounced tu-desk-ee), however, will tell you that despite the comparisons to Joplin, her real vocal roots extend much deeper, straight back to such soul and blues singers as Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Big Mama Thornton, artists who in fact influenced Joplin herself.
"You've got to have roots," Tedeschi says. "I think that's the one thing that's going to pull me through. I think I have good roots. I'm a big fan of everyone from Hank [Williams] Sr. to Bob Marley to Muddy Waters to way back before that, even. Anybody that's got their feet real deep into something, the history and the soul that inspires the music, really."
Spend any amount of time talking with Tedeschi, and it's clear she is a student of roots music. She can talk at length about the virtues of influential bluesmen such as Magic Sam, B.B. King or T-Bone Walker, or soul singers Etta James or Aretha Franklin and even a jazz guitarist such as Charlie Christian. She bemoans the fact that music fans who are discovering blues through young artists such as Jonny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepherd will never have the chance to see the late bluesmasters Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker or Big Mama Thornton.
Interestingly, though, Tedeschi has absorbed much of her knowledge of such artists only since the early 1990s, after she attended Berklee College of Music in her hometown of Boston.
In fact, Tedeschi's first love was gospel. As a child, she had sung in predominantly black Baptist and Methodist churches in the Massachusetts area. "Gospel has always been fascinating to me, and as a vocalist, it's like the most pleasing to sing, for me anyway," she says.
But Tedeschi didn't feel a future in gospel was in the cards. And even as she neared graduation from Berklee, she was unsure what path she would pursue with music.
"I was trying to get focused on something, but my heart wasn't in it," Tedeschi says. "It's like I really enjoyed singing certain country stuff, but then I also enjoyed singing jazz stuff. But really I didn't think I did either of those justice because I just didn't care about them enough. It's not that I didn't care about them enough, I just didn't feel that connection in singing. Then when I was at Berklee, when I was in the gospel choir, that was the strongest of any kind of response I got, whether it was from people or from myself. That was great, but I was still struggling because I was like, 'Gosh, I'm not going to be able to make a career being a white woman who sings gospel.' "
A turning point occurred shortly after she graduated in 1991, when Tedeschi started attending Sunday night blues jams at Johnny D's in Somerville, Massachusetts.
"I started going to the blues jam every Sunday, and there were just great musicians there all the time, really playing great stuff, and then that's how I ended up [getting immersed in the blues]," Tedeschi says.
It wasn't long before Tedeschi graduated from blues jams to making her own name around Boston. After playing with members of Toni Lynn Washington's band for a couple of years, Tedeschi formed her own band in 1993. That unit, which featured lead guitarist Adrienne Hayes, bassist Jim Lamond and drummer Tom "T.H." Hambridge, backs Tedeschi on Just Won't Burn.
It's a group that enjoyed considerable notice, first by winning Boston's Battle of the Blues Bands in 1994 and soon afterward placing second in the National Blues Talent Competition in Memphis. By then the Susan Tedeschi Band was a hot attraction around the Boston area, and after she released an independent debut record in 1995 to sell at shows, Tedeschi started to draw interest from national record labels. She is now signed to Tone-Cool, which is distributed by Rounder Records.
Just Won't Burn, however, is the swan song for that edition of the Susan Tedeschi Band. Since finishing the CD, she has assembled a new group around lead guitarist Sean Costello, an 18-year-old phenom, and members of Costello's other band, the Jivebombers. Costello also appears on Just Won't Burn.
"I think the record overall came out great, and I'm happy with it because it captured the band that I had been touring with for a long time," Tedeschi says. "That's really what I wanted to accomplish, was to get Jim and T.H. and Adrienne and Sean and myself all on tape, because Sean, I figured, was the future of where I'm going, and the old band was where we had been for so long. Basically you need to grow with each record. And my first record, oh my gosh, it's come so far just since that record."
For all the talk of blues, Just Won't Burn does not limit itself to that style. There are pure blues tunes such as the cover of Junior Wells's "Little by Little" and the Tedeschi/ Hambridge original "Friar's Point." But Tedeschi shows plenty of soul on "It Hurt So Bad" (a song on which she says she actually tried to emulate soul singer Etta James and not Joplin) and "Looking for Answers." Her cover of John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery" blends country and soul.
Despite such eclecticism, Tedeschi says her music seems to be embraced even by fairly staunch blues purists. Her approach to music, she says, may have something to do with such acceptance.
"I kind of know the respect and the etiquette of the blues," she says. "And I really respect the whole tradition, and not only the tradition behind it, but the artists who have been there ... I know why people play the way they do now. If B.B. King never came along, people wouldn't play like that. And if T-Bone didn't come before somebody, or T-Bone's teacher, this other guy who taught a couple of other guys didn't come along, or if Charlie Christian never played electric guitar; there are so many people who really changed the whole way that everything is done. Once you start to learn about that and listen to their music, it all comes together.
"Then I think if you take those fundamentals and always keep it within your music, always respect that, it doesn't matter what you do," she says. "You can do anything. And my whole thing is I had so many influences before I became so focused on blues that I can't take that stuff out. That stuff's in there now. So I think a lot of people notice that, too, and they respect that because it's more original.
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