In this 2003 performance from the Austin City Limits series, New England's Susan Tedeschi demonstrates a range that extends well beyond her blues base. Following the blueprint employed by Bonnie Raitt a few decades earlier, she covers John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery" (a signature tune for Raitt), inserting a snippet from the Grateful Dead's "Sugaree." The piano balladry of her "Wrapped in the Arms of Another" could fit just fine on a Raitt album. The set also finds her sampling from the songbooks of Sly Stone ("You Can Make It If You Try"), Bob Dylan ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"), and Stevie Wonder ("Love's in Need of Love Today"), in addition to the more straightforward blues of Koko Taylor ("Voodoo Woman"). Though Tedeschi's stinging lead guitar provides the focus, she receives strong support from a band featuring the interplay of electric pianist Jason Crosby (who doubles on violin) and William Green on Hammond B-3 organ. Highlights include a tribute to jam-band inspiration Col. Bruce Hampton on "Hampmotized" and the simmering "Wait for Me," with its echoes of Aretha Franklin.
With a vibrant, versatile voice (sounding at times like an inspired mix of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt) capable of adding subtle emotional shifts to slow-burning ballads or rocking out with the big boys, Susan Tedeschi burst on the scene at the close of the 1990s like a breath of fresh air in an era of prefab MTV teen idols. Like Raitt, Tedeschi works from a blues base, but she mixes in a strong sense of R&B and gospel, and with Back to the River, her second release for Verve Forecast, she shows that she's really starting to find herself as a songwriter, as well. Tedeschi wrote or co-wrote all but one of the 11 tracks here, and while one could still say these songs are based in her beloved blues, like Raitt, she has branched out from there to become a solid pop artist with a real and accessible vision, and the blues is just the engine under the hood. There are some wonderful moments here, including the big and funky title track, "Back to the River," which Tedeschi co-wrote with swamp pop master Tony Joe White, the sincere and solid "Learning the Hard Way," co-written with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, and the impressive "Butterfly," which Tedeschi' co-wrote with her husband, Derek Trucks.