When word came down that Tedeschi Trucks band was doing a pair of shows I immediately marked the calendar. I had previously seen Susan Tedeschi. Was certainly familiar with Derek Trucks, heir to the Allman Bros Butch Trucks legacy. But that husband/wife, blended band configuration? Nope. Part of me was embarrassed. This is music up my alley. Why was I so slow to a party that 5000 ticket holding fans already knew? How could anybody be slower than the folks who award Grammy’s?
I have to admit, it was a bit tough to head downtown. Maybe it was that Friday culminated a week in which I’d seen an improbable 10 bands. Maybe it was a bit of sleep deprivation. Possibly it had something to do with the fact that it was a gorgeous Indian Summer evening and I was once more headed inside. Dutifully, I dragged my body along the sidewalk toward the theater entrance.
Sometimes things happen for a reason. As I passed the next door MacKenzie’s tavern, a pack of animated people piled out the door and nearly bowled over. Before my impatience could bubble up, I recognized good friends from local blues band Bluedog. They were all smiles and greeted me warmly. Young singer Alex Buffalohead was excited and confided to me: “Susan Tedeschi was my inspiration. She was the whole reason I decided to be a singer.”
So was I going to catch a second wind? Were we going to have a great night? You bet! I just needed somebody to remind me that covering shows is not work. It’s a privilege. If the choice is ever attending a Tedeschi Trucks Band show or chilling on a couch, only an idiot would choose the latter.
When the band walked out on stage the audience was locked and loaded. No opener needed. The room was already plenty ready. This is one big band. Ten musicians/singers surrounding two world class guitarists. It is reminiscent of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. Something rarely seen any longer. The logistics and costs of taking a tribe this size on the road makes a lot more artistic than financial sense. Bless those guys for thinking of us first.
They opened with the improbable Jimmy Cliff island jam Sittin’ In Limbo. It was an easy pace, allowing all the members to find the flow. It occurred to me that all that firepower on stage wasn’t there to add decibels or to try to overwhelm the audience. It was to provide layers and nuance. To give the band the flexibility to go wherever they wanted to go. Before the night was done the band had comfortably explored the known galaxy.
But laid back isn’t really what TTB does. And as the band upshifted to Don’t Let Me Slide, Trucks let his Gibson SG rip for the first time. It served notice of the horsepower at his beck and call. Then straight to the funk with Don’t Know What. It’s time for Tedeschi to flaunt her credentials. She takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to playing a guitar. But stylistically she’s more a traditional Buddy Guy blues style while Trucks is a master of the slide and more amorphous jam band ilk. Together,it is a potent combination.
By the fourth song, the crowd was really with them. When they dropped into The Box Tops’ The Letter, everything clicked and the crowd jumped. Tedeschi was more Joe Cocker than Box Tops. Bback up singers Mike Madison, Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour were transcendent. The vocal performance brought the house down and produced the first of a number of standing ovations.
As the opening set progressed I came to understand and appreciate this band a bit more. In many respects, it is an amalgamation of two bands. After all, both Tedeschi and Trucks were successfully touring their own bands both prior to and after tying the knot. It makes it tougher to easily identify who they are; what the focus of the band really is. In other ways it’s more than the sum of its parts. Kind of like one and one don’t make two. More like one and one makes us. Isn’t that like a marriage, after all? Does a band really need to be pigeonholed?
It’s important to understand the role everybody plays here. Susan is front and center with her lightning in a bottle vocals and gritty guitar. Derek is perhaps the most unassuming virtuoso whose name ever graced a band’s name plate. His place is stage right and often a bit back. Occasionally, he steps to the center with her. Normally, his focus is on that big band. They are all locked on him. It is no small thing to pull off double drums, horns, back up singers and all the pieces of a traditional band. There’s no doubt he’s the conductor. But he’s content to remain out of the spotlight and let his fingers do the talking.
There’s an air of generosity that pervades this group. It’s a family feel. Tedeschi and Trucks both seem to truly enjoy what their band mates bring to the table. They go out of their way to shine the spotlight on them. This was particularly clear on Down In The Flood which brought back up singer Mike Mattison to the front mic. The song ground out a delta blues style pain, wandered, jammed and culminated with Trucks wailing a solo. The audience was electric and leaped to their feet as one at the song’s conclusion. Heady, Allman Brothers kind of stuff.
Susan stepped off stage for the instrumental Mahjoun which moved keyboard player Kofi Burbridge to the front with a flute. This was like a fresh Southern summer morning that warmed throughout the day, cumulus clouds popping through the cap as a storm built. The beautiful, jazzy flute became more insistent and morphed into a Jethro Tull style wind storm, replete with moans and groans in the breaths. The storm eventually broke as the focus shifted to bass player Tim Lefebvre and percussionists Tyler Greeenway and JJ Johnson for a thundering rhythm section jam.
The opening set concluded with Let Me Get By, a jazzy exploration combining Trucks’ spaced out tone and Burbridges’ Halloween style keyboard styling. An hour had sped past. Eight songs, all given plenty of room to roam.
The band took a 30 minute intermission, which seemed about 10 minutes too long. Then again, it takes a bit longer to get a 12 piece band watered, relieved and wrangled than your typical 4 piece combo. Plus, the lines at the bar get mighty deep. Six of the members took to the stage, sans horns and back up vocalists. Mama was all about Tedeschi. A down the middle of the road blues that featured her guitar. This was transitioned into Going, Going Gone with it’s Bonnie Raitt feel. Trucks stepped to the center with her and let that SG scream.
With the full band now back on stage, the long jam Shame hit with a bang. A hard boogie that quickly shifted into the longest, phased guitar solo of the night. When a ton of reverb was added to Tedeschi’s vocal, the song took on a huge, ethereal quality. Normally, I’m not into jam band stuff or jazz explorations. But this one was really tasty.
Derek Trucks is a unique player with a distinct sound. Unlike other guitar gods who surround themselves with effects pedals, he coaxes an incredible range of tones with a single boost pedal, plenty of amp power and technique. He is not limited by a pick. As precise as that little piece of plastic can be, it effectively limits a player to only two passes at a string; once down and once up. Instead, by stroking down with the back of his fingers Trucks incorporates a rhythmic flamenco underpinning. The thumb is free to play his own harmony line and all four fingers catch lead line strings. The butt of the hand is continually rolling the tone and volume controls on the guitar to produce the nuances he demand. At times watching that right hand is like watching an electrified spider dancing over the strings. It seems effortless and is nothing short of amazing.
That technique was used to full effect on Midnight In Harlem which opened with a long conversation with Kebbi William’s saxophone before offering Elizabeth Lea an opportunity to rock the house with her trombone. The song built to the biggest crescendo of the night and produced the first of the second set standing ovations.
A bit later, most of the band exited the stage and Tedeschi delivered a wonderful, stripped down interpretation of the Dylan classic Don’t Think Twice. It reminded me once again that TTB always puts the music in front of themselves. A great song is a great song. It is always enough. It doesn’t require much of anything to make it better.
The cool covers continued when the whole band jumped into Night Time Is The Right Time. Great Motown soul with the back up singers laying down a brilliant Phil Specter wall of sound; Tedeschi trading verses with them. When Alecia Chakour took to the microphone the room became electric. She flat wailed. Mark Rivers added his molasses to the mix. I found myself wondering where do they get these people? And how do they keep them?
Tedeschi and Trucks shared the center of the stage to open the set’s final song I Want More. They matched lead lines. She with that gritty Chicago style blues tone. He with that softer, moaning SG slide. Two voices. Distinct, yet married to become one.
As the band left the stage Tedeschi thanked the audience for listening. And she thanked everybody for supporting live music. Before adding: “But Twin Cities, you always do.”
Learning to Live Together was the encore. It is a joyous song. A song of hope. And it seemed so apropos in these times. It was a chance for everybody in the band to simply milk every note and musical idea left from their bag of tricks. Trucks wandered all the way across the stage to stand with the horn section of Lea, Williams and trumpet Ephraim Owens. Together, all the instruments struck up a conversation. Pure joy was there to be seen on all the band members’ faces. Tedeschi stood back and just enjoyed watching them. Everybody simply appreciating each other. An enthusiastic crowd loving every minute of it. That’s when live music becomes transcendent.
What a week of music in the Twin Cities! From Gramma’s Boyfriend to The Dirty Nil to The Shackletons to Tabah to Low Cut Connie to (an unfortunately cancelled) Lilly Allen to Tedeschi Trucks. The culmination of that list was truly world class. So full of grace and power. Many of us music fans are now flat worn out. But the next time our scene decides to pack a schedule like this again…like Jackson Browne said: “We’ll get up and do it again!”