Veteran performer Cathy Richardson exploded onto the Chicago music scene in the 1990s with a rootsy sound, a powerhouse voice and a kinetic stage presence. Now, she's ready to really rock.
Richardson is leading a new band, the Macrodots, that delivers modern, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll designed to be heard with the volume set at "MAX."
Macrodots (with Luna Blu)
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20
Where: Fitzgerald's Nightclub, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn
Tickets: $15; see fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
"It's the hardest-rocking band I've been a part of," Richardson said. "I'm really excited about it."
The idea for the new approach came while Richardson, a Burr Ridge native who now lives in Elmhurst, was based in San Francisco. She was there playing the title role in "Love, Janis," the acclaimed off-Broadway stage musical about the life and times of Janis Joplin.
Musician and producer Zack Smith, who co-founded the group Scandal in the 1980s, liked Richardson's performance in the musical and her past records. He thought there was potential to bring out a different side to the singer.
"I also think he was eager to get out of the studio and start playing again," Richardson said. "It worked out well. He would turn out these musical ideas, some of them just one-minute snippets, and I'd go into the studio and let the lyrics come to me."
The result is "The Other Side," the Macrodots' debut record, now available for download on iTunes and amazon.com.
Longtime fans of Richardson will surely recognize the attitude and energy of her singing here, but they might be surprised to hear the bluesy, acoustic touches of her previous records largely replaced by a hard-driving electric sound.
The new songs evoke '70s classic rock, but with a contemporary sheen. Consider the track "Rock and Roll Part II," which opens with a crunching, Zeppelin-like riff, or "Piece of Me," with its propulsive drums and insistent guitar-driven groove.
"When I was a kid, classic rock was what really hooked me," Richardson said. "Especially Heart. I listened to lots and lots of Heart. This record is the most obvious nod to Heart and their influence on me."
The Macrodots is just the latest turn in a colorful and varied career for Richardson. She performed onstage tirelessly with her own group, the Cathy Richardson Band, throughout the '90s, establishing herself as a top-shelf live act.
Near the end of that decade, she joined the original cast of "Love, Janis," which enjoyed successful runs around the country. Richardson, who earned raves for her performances as Joplin, would appear in the musical off and on during the next 10 years.
Her most recent performances happened in front of Joplin's hometown fans in San Francisco.
"That was so rewarding," she said. "I was performing in front of people who actually knew her. Opening night was one of the best experiences I've had."
Playing Joplin tested Richardson both as a vocalist and as a live performer. Richardson said she had to learn how to sing hard while also evoking the distinctive sound of Joplin's voice.
"I hope the experience made me better as a singer," she said. "It pushed me to do things I didn't think I could. It also made me more aware of my limits, which is a good thing to know."
Playing the role also forced Richardson to ditch her guitar, which she'd always performed with during Cathy Richardson Band shows.
"I had never stalked the stage the way I had to do in the musical," she said. "It was a learning experience."
In addition to her stage work, Richardson spent the last 10 years putting out records and making regular appearances on "Jack's Big Music Show," a wildly popular children's television show that still airs on the Nick Jr. cable channel.
In 2007, Richardson toured with Joplin's old band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. In 2008 and 2009, she toured with another classic-rock heavyweight, Jefferson Starship.
Now, she's hitting the road with the Macrodots. The band has a show coming up on Saturday, Nov. 20, at Fitzgerald's Nightclub in Berwyn.
"I always wanted to do different kinds of things with my career, so I'm grateful for the experiences I've had," she said. "The Macrodots is the latest part of that, but I hope I can keep doing new things in the future. I hope to keep evolving."