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Looping and female virtuosity: Theresa Andersson at the Hotel Café

January 30, 2009 | 12:38 pm

Tanderson_ The first time I saw someone use loops and pedals onstage, the trick really seemed like magic. The artist was Joseph Arthur, the wildly prolific singer-songwriter who’s more recently taken to playing his raggedy, romantic music with a rock and roll band, the Lonely Astronauts.

Five or six years ago, he took a different approach. In his solo performances, Arthur stood or kneeled before a row of pedals, turning his voice into a chorus of harmonies, calls and responses, and his guitar into a chamber orchestra.

Back then, Arthur was ahead of the pack, though hardly alone. Friends responded to my cries of “he’s a genius!” with examples of their own -- Andrew Bird, Keller Williams, Largo’s own Jon Brion. Now, it’s common to see artists setting up a whole row of hardware before their sets begin. A recent Boston Globe feature on looping notes the aficionados' site  www.loopers-delight.com/loop.html million hits per month.

Looping transforms the singer-songwriter from a rustic and natural-seeming emoter into a future-thinking techie. For women, this has particular implications, and it's exciting that many leading loopers are women: K.T. Tunstall, Emily Wells, Imogen Heap, Juana Molina, Marnie Stern and Kaki King, among them.

So is Theresa Andersson, who plays multiple instruments, turning herself into that staple of the American street corner -- the “one-man band.” When a woman assumes this role, she flips the script on established notions of artistic power and skill.

In many areas of pop -- on the Top 40 chart, as songwriters, as support players in indie bands -- women have made great strides toward equality. But the dazzling display of virtuosity is still mainly a guy thing.

Once in a while, you’ll see a female drummer or bassist in a mainstream rock band (Kid Rock, of all people, has employed Stefanie Eulinberg since he was a wee rapper), and country music boasts some very fine players, from the Dixie Chicks to Abigail Washburn. Singular elders like Polly Harvey and Kristin Hersh have marched onto the field with their guitars for many years. There are the singer-songwriters too -- especially the legion of girls at their pianos, grown-up dutiful daughters whose lessons paid off.

Yet even among these gifted instrumentalists, the voice always dominates. In R&B, it's the whole show, though Beyoncé at least used an all-female band as gimmick on her last tour. Alison Krauss is a wicked fiddle player, but she’s better known for her whispery vocals. Your standard celebrity all-star jam -- we'll see a few at the Grammys next week, I'm sure -- gives John Mayer or Dave Grohl free rein to display his chops (and unbearable guitar face), but if Sheryl Crow’s there, she’ll just strum a little in the background and take the lead on the mic.

One way out of this corner is to find a truly supportive mate, as the ridiculously fleet-fingered Gabriela Quintero has with her partner in acoustic guitar shredding, Rodrigo Sanchez. But that’s pretty rare. More frequently, women are striking out on their own, claiming the old “one-man band” cliché and reinvigorating it.

Andersson is one such woman. The Swedish-born, New Orleans-based singer-songwriter, who ends a month-long residency at the Hotel Café tonight, does not look at all like a band geek. She’s comely in thrift-store finery, with a smile that could light up a cloud bank. And she can sing -- her range and strength are that of a soul belter’s, though her tone comes closer to the ingenues of classic pop like Feist and Lykke Li.

Andersson lays out her own bank of pedals onstage, along with a drum kit, a guitar, a violin, a keyboard and sometimes a hammer dulcimer. Oh, and a tambourine, which signals her great happiness. She commands these tools with jovial ease, crafting multifaceted songs that have one foot in retro soul and one in Scandinavian pop.

During recent performance at the Hotel Café, Andersson introduced one song by trotting out her “backup singers” -- each one a loop of her voice, with a distinct personality and a tendency to sass back to the others. On another, she featured a sample from New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson, who appeared onstage virtually, in a portrait on the cover of the album that provided the sample.

These whimsical asides made Andersson’s skills seem like no big deal: the casual mastery of someone who cut her teeth as a street performer and still knows that entertaining the crowd is the first priority. But as she dives deeper into each song, her dexterity makes a deep impression.

It does feel a bit like magic. But practical magic -– the kind women have been known to practice for centuries, long before guitar gods walked the Earth.

Theresa Andersson plays tonight at 7 at the Hotel Café. She will appear on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" on Wednesday.

-- Ann Powers

Related: 2009 artist to watch: Theresa Andersson

Photo: Basin Street Records