When Susan Tedeschi graduated from high school in 1988 in blues-unlikely Norwell, Mass., she debated becoming a marine biologist.
Instead, she immersed herself in studies at Boston’s pedigreed Berklee College of Music.
Fifteen years later, and Tedeschi has shared stages with both Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, and has garnered two Grammy nominations, including Best Female Rock Performance for “Alone,” from her newest album, Wait for Me (Artemis Records, 2002).
Who says a college education doesn’t pay?
Certainly not Tedeschi, whose Berklee career included a stint in the gospel choir, and yielded a BA in 1991 in the college’s Professional Music With Emphasis on Arranging and Performance program.
And with that heady-sounding degree in tow, Tedeschi started down the requisite long road of weddings, seedy-bar gigs and best-band competitions.
Then, only a few years further down the line, The Susan Tedeschi Band was named Best R&B Act by Boston Magazine (in 1994), and Outstanding Blues Act at the Boston Music Awards (in 1995, and again in ’96). Not long after, Tone-Cool Records released Tedeschi’s big-label debut, Just Won’t Burn (1998).
As with Norah Jones’ first album, Burn took a while to ignite — the Grammy nomination didn’t arrive for two years (and Burn eventually sold more than 500,000 copies). Tedeschi’s original songs were ample evidence that you don’t always have to wallow in the Mississippi mud to sing the blues.
With fellow Berklee alum Tom Hambridge (who penned “Rock Me Right” and “It Hurts So Bad,” two of Burn’s grittiest songs), Tedeschi developed an updated blues persona — a Sex in the City type girl who gets hurt every time she falls in love, but still falls, every time.
Her spectacular voice was unflinchingly emotional, though still controlled enough to beg comparisons to that of Bonnie Raitt, and wild enough at times to be confused with the barrelhouse pipes of Janis Joplin.
It was Tedeschi’s version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” that really made Burn burn — specifically, the way the singer rescued the song from Prine’s cast-off delivery (Tedeschi’s take has more in common with the later duet-version that Prine recorded with Raitt).
Arriving as it does after nine near-perfect blues tunes, Tedeschi’s naked “Angel” hints that maybe the singer — growing up far, far way from any Deep South, devil-trod crossroads — might feel as out of place as the woman in Prine’s song who marries a cowboy only to discover the two of them can’t even talk.
Only four years later, and Wait for Me bristles with flashy confidence from the very start: Album opener “Alone” moves adroitly from loping beat to full-on crescendo of loneliness, all buttressed by plentiful horns and Tedeschi’s full, but never throaty, vocals. Credit some of the sonic glitz to the now-late, great producer Tom Dowd (Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin), and some of the heightened instrumental oomph to husband Derek Trucks, renowned blues-rock guitarist and sometimes Allman Brother.
But this time out, Tedeschi has merely cycled through genres — the blues has become more reference than destination. Wait for Me’s lack of center, in fact, makes it harder to approach — perilous for a performer whose accessibility is among her main attractions.
Don’t let the too-thick polish throw you: Tedeschi remains a first-rate singer and musician. And while she’ll never be able to boast the tortured biography of the musicians she most admires — Dr. John, for instance, took up piano after his “strummin’ finger” was shot off in a barroom fight — Tedeschi’s talent and voice foretell a lengthy career.
Her blues won’t burn out for a while yet.
Susan Tedeschi plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) on Monday, Oct. 6 with Jackie Greene. Tickets cost $23; showtime is 8 p.m.