Christina Schlieske's Blues Explosion

The 12-year road from struggling bar band to major-label hopeful has not been easy for Christina Schlieske. Despite her widespread popularity, the leader of Tina and the B-Side Movement has polarized local music audiences like few others--a woman whose show-biz dreams have always seemed, well, un-Minnesotan, at least by the anti-star standard set by old boys' clubs like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and the Jayhawks.

As a result, she's met with the sort of backbiting and scathing press that would stop many artists cold. But not Tina. "I think I keep myself at a distance from that whole thing because I really don't take myself seriously enough to let people affect me," she says by phone from Los Angeles, where she moved last year during the making of her new album, Salvation. "After a certain point, I just couldn't go around worrying what every single person thinks, because I'd go crazy. You can't be that grounded."

It's a surprise to hear such calm words from a woman whose image revolves around her mighty stage presence and a reputation as a control freak. But then, the public view of the flamboyant Schlieske has always been at odds with the more reserved, still awestruck homegirl, who was gracious and surprisingly unguarded in her hometown last week as she and her band prepared for an unprecedented three-night stand at First Avenue this Thursday through Friday.

In past, whenever she began "ego-tripping" (to use her favorite phrase), she counted on a reality check from close friends, and a very supportive family, which includes her businessman father; her arts-loving mother; her sister Laura, a longtime bandmate and vocal partner; and brother Erich, formerly her drummer and now her road manager. In fact, Schlieske's wish to extend that family vibe to her audience may be one of the reasons her local following is so extremely passionate, even quasi-religious. It's that mutual faith that seems to have brought Tina through some of the harshest times.

"Ever since I was young, I've had this vision, or a sense that deep down I knew what other people felt," she confesses. "I always knew if someone was happy or depressed, even without them saying anything. And I felt I could write music that would go along with that. Same thing in performance. I just felt I knew what people wanted."

Following their rambunctious 1992 debut disc, Young Americans, and a speculative demo for Virgin Records that didn't go anywhere, Tina and the B-Side Movement recorded a mellower follow-up, which reunited Schlieske with songwriter-guitarist Patrik Tanner, a friend from Apple Valley High School who'd pursued record and publishing deals in L.A. The record, Monster, made a smaller splash locally, but sparked a scouting war which was eventually won by Seymour Stein. While president of Sire/Reprise Records, he signed Madonna, Chrissie Hynde, Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Replacements, and--perhaps most importantly--k.d. lang, who seems to have become something of a stylistic touchstone for Schlieske.

Now president of Elektra Records, Stein's reputation among artists, especially strongminded female artists, would seem to put Schlieske in a position of creative liberty that lang enjoyed when Stein was at Reprise. "He's never really said exactly what he wants from me. I think he liked my individuality and where that drive has taken me. Frankly, [band manager] Patsy has spoken with him more than I have, because when I speak with him, I just freak out that it's Seymour Stein talking. To have someone like that have that much faith in you is incredible."

That vote of confidence has evidently been taken to heart, as Schlieske's self-assurance shines from beginning to end on Salvation, a diverse but cohesive 10-song collection that is by far her strongest work yet. The woman who's publicly tried on the shoes of teenybopper, hippie child, lustful lesbian, and boozing blueswoman is finding a way to combine her various musical loves into a multifaceted musical identity, validated by that aching, versatile voice. The emotional focus and artistic risk-taking of Salvation should move even skeptics (and I admit that for a time, I was one) to reevaluate their take on the band.

Tina's emotional breakthrough is first evident on the beautiful "Tonite," a lang-styled number filled with an unprecedented vulnerability, and heightened by a weeping string section. If "Tonite" is revealing, the slow R&B rouser "It's Alright" is downright startling. Inspired in part by the separation from her band since she relocated to Los Angeles, the song's spirit of devotion and selflessness would've seemed unthinkable from the Tina of four years ago. On the slower-moving side two, "Become Me" is an abstract but intriguing duel between the singer and her ancestral alter ego, in which a wigged-out clarinet solo gives the tune a Russian folk effect.

That sets the tone for the record's tour de force, the blood-curdling "Lullaby." If the lyrical inspiration smacks of channel-surfing during the Susan Smith circus, the vocal delivery cuts to the bone. Schlieske wavers in and out of key as if in a hyperventilating panic, muttering lyrics that sound like hysterical prayers, with a final wail that fades as if sinking beneath still waters. The album closes with a tone of weary resignation on "Million Miles Away," which details a marriage of convenience with the sorrow of pure autobiography.

Clearly, Salvation shows Schlieske's impressive transformation from bar-band shouter to a songsmith with a distinctive writer's voice. The singer agrees that she's grown. "I think the change came from a huge combination of things," she says. "Being in my late 20s, finally getting signed, and looking back on the type of person I'd become after 10 years of pushing so hard to get to this point, and questioning the worth of all that. I realized I definitely wanted to grow more as an artist, and the only way I could do that was to let go of a lot of the things I had held so tightly. I just couldn't be such a control freak anymore. I definitely think I'm a much calmer person to be around, and I know the band enjoys that."

Tina credits resourceful producer Paul Fox (Semisonic, Sugarcubes, XTC) with being an ace collaborator, bringing in numerous musical guests to fatten up the more upbeat tracks with horn sections and gospel choruses (including Rose Stone of Sly and the Family Stone). At other times, he adds fine detail to the country weepers, such as the sweet brass backdrop on the lonesome "I've Been Waiting." But it's Tina's vocal strength and breadth that make these feel like extensions rather than impositions. "I've always dabbled in different musical styles," she says. "And I just want to be able to write in any style I choose without sounding like something I'm not, or sounding too retro."

Though Bob Dylan's influence is less noted in her music than Janis Joplin's, Schlieske has shown a brave political concern in her writing, as on "Sons and Daughters" or Monster's smart religious critique, "Find No Right." But as an openly queer artist, Schlieske has so far avoided the soapbox and the spotlight on gay issues. "I've maintained a certain privacy in my personal life," she says, "and I think it's because I don't try to hide anything. If you project a protective, paranoid energy, it will only make your life more miserable. So far, nobody has dubbed me a "Great White Dyke Hope" or anything, like they have with Melissa Etheridge. I do think it is about time that people noticed that there is a huge [queer] market, and I certainly won't shy away from advertising or exposing myself there. But fortunately, people have just looked at me as a musician and not tried to put me in a certain category."

At this point, you couldn't put Schlieske in a simple category even if you did try. Descriptions like "country crooner" and "blues wailer" both seem to fit. But onstage last Saturday at Concordia College's Cornstock festival, the term "rocker" was still appropriate. In a clinging blue silk shirt, led the band in a 90-minute set, encoring with a sloppy version of Hendrix's "Fire." Tellingly, for a band that made their name doing Aretha Franklin covers and other '60s classics, it was the only non-original of the night.

Offstage, the sweat-soaked band looked glad to be done with the show, which seemed a vintage college-venue nightmare: inadequate monitors, last-minute schedule changes, gymnasium acoustics, etc. If they're insulted, they take it well, assured perhaps that they've just played their last show as an unsigned, regional phenomenon. Now they head for the Cities to begin rehearsal for a string of album-release concerts here, where positive reviews of Salvation have already been coming in. After more than a decade of neglect, dashed hopes, buildup and backlash, finally, a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T when they get home. CP

Tina and the B-Side Movement perform Thursday through Saturday at First Avenue; 332-1775.

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