When critically lauded singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi recently set out to make an all-covers album, she didn’t flinch from tackling the giants. Indeed, on her latest disc, Hope and Desire, Tedeschi puts her own, supremely soulful spin on songs by the all-world likes of Bob Dylan, Jagger-Richards, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder, undaunted by the long shadow cast by the originals.
In recent years, Tedeschi, who comes to the Orange Peel on Saturday, has earned a righteous rep for her fiery rocking-blues fretwork – she’s been nominated for three Grammys, and has snagged other awards from blues mags and blues foundations. She isn’t a straight-blues artist, however: Tedeschi also draws on classic R&B, gospel, folk and roots rock for her own variation on the contempo-blues theme.
But this disc was her first for Verve, after releasing four discs on the New West, Tone-Cool and Oarfin labels since ‘98. “Verve wanted me to do a record that highlighted my singing instead of my guitar playing,” says Tedeschi during a phone interview from her home in Jacksonville, Fla.
“That was fine with me, because even though the guitar playing is something that’s gotten more attention the last several years, I was a singer first.” Tedeschi sang in local choirs while growing up in suburban Boston. Still, going the all-covers route wasn’t her first choice. “I’d just had my second child, and I did have some originals written, but a lot of ‘em weren’t quite finished,” says the singer, whose endearingly girlish speaking voice is very different from the husky timbre her pipes deliver in song.
“Plus, Joe [Henry, who produced the disc] wanted to use the musicians he usually makes records with, instead of my own band. But my band co-wrote some of the new songs,” she says. “So it would have been harder to translate to the studio band how I wanted the new songs to sound.”
So it was decided that a covers album was the way to go.
Doing a tribute collection is always a challenge, however. First, the universe opens up, presenting so many options that an artist can feel overwhelmed by the task of sorting through some very deep catalogues. Second, when tackling songs by legendary writers, it’s important to walk a fine line: You don’t want to make obvious choices, but at the same time, making self-consciously obscure choices just comes off as, well, self-conscious.
But Tedeschi and Henry avoid both of those traps, and Tedeschi lends her sultry, somewhat roughhewn vocals to gems like the Stones’ “You Got the Silver,” Dylan’s “Lord, Protect My Child,” Redding’s “Security,” Wonder’s “Lovin’ You Has Made My Life Sweeter Than Ever,” Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me,” Ray Charles’ “Tired of My Tears,” Fontana Bass’ “Soul of a Man” and Donny Hathaway’s “Magnificent Sanctuary Band.” (Actually, the Franklin, Charles, Bass and Hathaway tunes were written by other writers, but their performances are the best-known versions.)
The Raitt stuff
Together, Tedeschi, Henry and band have delivered a disc that carries all of the passion, yearning and grit of a classic-soul project from the 1960s or ‘70s. And, since Tedeschi’s vocal tone and phrasing are strikingly similar to Bonnie Raitt’s, the disc also sounds like the best ‘70s-roots-pop record that Raitt never made. Indeed, Hope and Desire would have fit in perfectly with Raitt’s catalogue of the era, nestled between such classic discs as Give It Up and Takin’ My Time.
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing that for a long time,” says Tedeschi of the Raitt comparisons. “I think it’s probably partly because she and I have a lot of the same influences – we love a lot of the same singers. To me, this disc has that same quality of her records from that period, where she had folk and soul and blues, all mixed together.”
One of the most entertaining games listeners can play when sitting down with an all-covers disc is hearing how the artist puts his/her own spin on songs covered by previous generations of roots-rock heroes. Hope and Desire is one of those. The Jerry Garcia Band also covered “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” in the mid-‘70s, but Tedeschi’s version has more of a gospel-ballad feel than Garcia’s, which was more uptempo and funkier. Tedeschi and Henry also wisely recruited the all-world gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama to lend their spine-tingling backing vocals to the track.
And The Band covered two of these songs: “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever” was a staple of their ‘70s live set, and Richard Manuel delivered a wrenching vocal performance of “If You Don’t Share Your Love With Me” on The Band’s own all-covers effort, Moondog Matinee. Tedeschi’s take is less tortured, more satiny.
Given Tedeschi’s own admirable guitar chops, one might think she had to be persuaded to lay down her ax for this project and hand over fretboard duties to another player. In this case, it was Doyle Bramhall, who has also lent his sympathetic guitar backing to two more of Henry’s recent, and wonderful, classic-soul projects – Bettye Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and Solomon Burke’s Make Do With What You Got.
But some of the sting was damped by the fact that her husband, the nimble-fingered Derek Trucks (second guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band since 2001), laid down his own shimmery guitar parts on three of the songs.
“Actually, my original intention was that I would go back and add some of my own guitar, but Doyle and Derek played so beautifully, I decided not to,” says Tedeschi, who guesses that her current live show includes “about eight” of the songs from Hope and Desire.
“I love to play guitar, but I’m not one to add guitar just for its own sake. I care more about the songs, and these had a nice, raw feel, so I didn’t want to clutter them up.”
Susan Tedeschi and The Gourds play the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Saturday, Jan. 28. 9 p.m. $22 ($20/advance). 225-5851.