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Music Review

Soaring sound and fury

Susan Tedeschi (Pieter Van Hattem) Susan Tedeschi shared songs from her new album.
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / November 14, 2008
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Susan Tedeschi apologized for having the sniffles during her show Tuesday night at the Berklee Performance Center.

But it was impossible to tell she was under the weather given the precision of her guitar playing and the tremendous control she exercised over her mighty howl and airtight backing quintet. Unless perhaps you were one of the many family members in attendance at the Norwell native's show.

Tedeschi's head cold didn't prevent the hour-and-40-minute show from busting the barrier of impressive flight to turbo-boosted rocket ride. It was the venue, which felt a little like going to church on a fifth date. Just when you're ready to cut loose, the environment intimidates you into being on your best behavior.

There's no doubt that the showcase space at Tedeschi's alma mater is acoustically superior to almost any venue in town. And the show did sound pin-drop clean, a good platform for debuting a big chunk of her tough and tender new album, "Back to the River." But Tedeschi whips up the kind of raucous stew of blues, gospel, and R&B that actually benefits from a little fuzz in the speakers, the humidity of a packed club, the clinking of glassware, and, crucially, a dance floor (although the enthusiastic but doggedly seated near-capacity crowd didn't seem to need that last accoutrement).

The show tended to be at its best in the extremes of delicacy and fury, which either used the room's best assets or transcended its atmosphere, as well as Tedeschi's own endearing but still palpable nerves. On the quiet end, the whispery licks of her fragile reading of the Beatles' "For No One" were spine tingling. During the folk-tinged "700 Houses," a sense of grieving bled through her husky evocation of the silent aftermath of a natural disaster. On the flip side, the heat emitting from the stomping, wah-wah funk of "Back to the River" and "Butterfly" could've powered a freight train.

Midtempo boilerplate blues numbers like "Love Will" and the ode to voting, "People," would've been fun to boogie to but felt bland against the static vibe of the room.

The musicianship was never less than top-notch, however. Tedeschi - whose voice ranged from a scorched-earth blues belt to a candied jazz purr - wrung beauty and pain from her fretboard and allowed her band members to stretch out. Ron Holloway's sultry saxophone in particular enlivened everything from the slinky "Love Is Black" to a heartfelt cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," which Tedeschi dedicated to her grandfather.

With rascally charm and a sweet soul scream, Brit singer-guitarist James Hunter and his nimble backing band primed the palate early on with a mix of vintage covers and vintage-sounding originals.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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MUSIC REVIEW

SUSAN TEDESCHI With James Hunter

At: Berklee Performance Center, Tuesday night

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