Like her mentor Josh White, Odetta spices a core repertoire of African-American folk with everything from English ballads to pop-jazz standards to traditional Appalachian tunes. Her polished and articulate alto voice, with its clarion tone, is equally powerful communicating desolation, rage, or hope; thanks in part to early classical training and musical theater experience, as well as her intensely expressive face, she can bring her material to life onstage with riveting conviction. The 1999 album Blues Everywhere I Go (M.C.) was her first with a full blues band in almost four decades (her recording career began in the 50s), and she's followed it up with another, the brand-new Lookin for a Home. Subtitled Thanks to Leadbelly, it's a collection of songs written or popularized by John Lomax's most famous "discovery," Huddie Ledbetter--another hard-to-classify singer, and one to whom Odetta has often been compared. Backed by Jimmy Vivino's spidery slide guitar, she takes the convict's lament "Midnight Special" at a subdued tempo, stately but not stiff, with a delivery as harsh and deliberate as the sound of a prison-yard hammer. On "New Orleans" (essentially the same song as "House of the Rising Sun") she uses a fragile mewl to evoke the shattered spirit of a broken-down brothel girl, and on "Roberta" she breaks out her entire dramatic armamentarium--first ascending into a tremulous warble that throbs with loneliness and erotic energy, then diving into a series of groans, growls, and heartbroken gasps. "Mother's Blues" and "In the Pines" are harrowing tales of abandonment and misfortune, but in Odetta's hands they aren't simply tragic: as she crescendoes from a whimper to a glorious wail, her iron timbre makes almost anything seem possible. This seamless union of devastation and redemption is the paradox that drives the heart of the blues, and she continues to embrace it with inspiring forthrightness and impeccable spirit. Saturday, October 20, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.