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Suddenly Susan

For the past year, Susan Tedeschi has been the hottest woman in the blues. Following the release last spring of her debut disc, Just Won't Burn, she's earned pages of great press, hosted countless sold-out shows and upheld a touring itinerary that makes her feel practically homeless. Along the way she's toured with some of the biggest names in her field, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang and Delbert McClinton. Equally as significant, she's managed to cross over to mainstream radio via "It Hurt So Bad," her current single. Not bad for a young, apple-cheeked Berklee Music School grad who just a year ago was shouldering her Stratocaster in the bars of her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts.

But while Tedeschi attributes her accomplishments to a combination of luck, record-company support and grueling roadwork, it's her voice--a circular saw of an instrument that slices straight to the bone and sends the skin crawling--that has put her name on the lips of listeners and radio programmers alike. In a world infected by the extraterrestrial histrionics of such scrawny divas as Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, Tesdeschi's earthy roar is a fleshed-out kick in the pants, full of grit, gusto and sexual energy. For many of those who hear her on the radio for the first time, her intensity calls to mind the ache of Janis Joplin, perhaps the finest emoter to ever bless the airwaves. "I get compared to Janis and Bonnie Raitt a lot," Tedeschi acknowledges. "It's probably because people never really hear women singers in rock and blues, and there's no one to compare me to these days."

This statement may be true, more or less, but it doesn't explain why Sam Andrew, guitarist for Joplin's best-known band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, has also noticed the resemblance. "Sam, he was funny," Tedeschi says. "He was like, 'If Janis could come back, she'd come back as you. I bet you are her.' He wanted me to play in his band, but I told him, 'Uh-uh. If I'm Janis, I already played with you.'"

Although Tedeschi's birthdate, just a few weeks after Joplin's 1970 death, might seem to lend credence to Andrew's reincarnation theories, better evidence for such thinking can be found on Burn, a disc filled with roadhouse rollick and huge helpings of emotion. Gritty twelve-bar grinders, smoky ballads and soulful sessions all benefit from Tedeschi's muscular singing, which shuffles from a rock-hard rumble to a dusky croon that steers away from showboat territory.

Tedeschi's at her most soothing on a cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," a Raitt signature tune that has endeared her to adult-contemporary listeners around the country. But it's when she wades into the rawer end of her dynamic range that she truly mocks her album's title. The way she handles the disc's opening line--"You say you haven't been rocked in a long, long time" (from "Rock Me Right")--makes it clear that she's hellbent on remedying the situation. Later, Tedeschi delivers wry winks and saucy innuendos such as "When it comes to home cooking, you'll eat every bite."

"It Hurt So Bad" finds Tedeschi at her peak: The song is a spine-tingling visit to blues-shouter nirvana. She responds to the tune's dramatic punches with the sort of lusty moans and groans that fill the nights of lovers and the dreams of the lovelorn. It's singing that emanates from the gut and hits a target a shade farther south. But while Tedeschi seems oblivious to her approach's more sensual merits, she admits that attendees at her concerts are often shocked that she is capable of producing such a raw-boned sound. "People look at me and think, 'That can't be coming out of her,'" she notes. "But that works to my advantage--and I can usually convert those people. They're like, 'Wait a minute. You look so sweet, but then you start singing.' It's just another side of me that gets unleashed. When I get on stage and that energy is there, I become a whole other person.

"A lot of people tell me that they've been waiting for something like this," she continues. "They're tired of the radio and tired of the stuff that gets thrown in their face all the time. They want something with some soul, and I'm honored that they think I've got some. Singers today, they're just given this generic stuff to sing. They're not singing about anything they care about. I'm so thankful I don't have to sing pop and all that other crap--that soulless kind of music."

Representatives of Paramount Pictures were hoping that Tedeschi would take on material from an earlier era: They invited her to audition for the title role in a Janis Joplin biography they're making. But Tedeschi turned them down, in part because she's planning to tour for six more months before taking a break to record a followup to Burn. But she has other reasons as well.

"Some people thought that it would be incredible exposure and that it would be great for me," she says. "But then other people, myself included, weren't so sure. I can understand why someone like Melissa Etheridge would want to do it, because they're already Melissa Etheridge and everybody knows them. But for people to see me for the first time in that role--well, I don't want them to get the wrong idea. I don't want to be known as Janis for the rest of my life. I like Janis, but she's not my biggest hero. I'd rather play Etta James in a movie." Chuckling, she adds, "Besides, I'm so busy trying to be Susan that I don't have time to be Janis."

Susan Tedeschi, with Mary Cutrufello. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 26 and 27, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $14.75 in advance/$15.75 day of show (March 27 date is sold out), 303-443-3399.

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Marty Jones

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