It’s always good to catch up with Miss Tess when she returns to Boston. The Maryland-raised singer-songwriter spent a good chunk of the ’00s in Boston, going to Berklee, getting a band together. When she started leading her band the Bon Ton Parade, she was calling her sound “modern vintage” (the name of one of her half-dozen full-length albums). That was a mix of blues and swing jazz with a touch of country. But she’s revised her sound and the band over time. She jettisoned the horn section she had for a while, and pretty much any pretension to jazz. At the Regattabar Wednesday night, she was fronting her current quartet, the Talkbacks, a lean guitar band. There’s still plenty of swing in the music, but these days it leans decidedly country — with flavors of Texas swing and rockabilly, and some standards that can go either way.
The opener, “Everybody’s Darling,” signaled everything that’s fresh about the band. It was one of Tess’s increasingly authoritative originals, about life on the road (“but no one’s sweetheart” is the followup to the title phrase), fast and sassy, something that could have come out of the Bob Wills book but with an outspoken young woman singing on the front line. There were sweet vocal harmonies (as there were all night) as well as harmonized lead guitar lines between Will Graefe’s big baby-blue Epiphone and Tess’s vintage Weymann electric. When called for, drummer Matt Meyer and bassist Larry Cook delivered that classic slap-back rockabilly rhythm.
The band offers Tess plenty of flexibility so that it can contain a good variety of music. Alongside the Texas swing and rockabilly, she could sing Willie Nelson’s own road song, “Night Life” (“the night life/ain’t no good life/but it’s my life”), and some Bonnie Raitt and Randy Newman. One of the highlights of the night was the Ink Spots’ “Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire,” sung with just bass and Graefe’s guitar. The lower volume allowed Tess’s vocals to shine — lyrics and music delivered with a mix of confidence and vulnerability.
Tess announced that the band are working on a new album in Brooklyn, due in the fall. Meanwhile, she and the Talkbacks have a busy weekend: tonight at the Press Room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tomorrow night at Harlow’s Pub in Peterborough, and Saturday at the big Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass. Catch them if you can.