Meet The Parents: Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks (Relix Revisited: 2003)

Dean Budnick on May 25, 2012

On the heels of the new Tedeschi Trucks Band release, we look back to the February-March 2003 issue of Relix for this feature on Susan and Derek.

The two tour buses occupy every inch of space between the traffic cones. Parked in front of a music venue on a Hartford, Connecticut thoroughfare, the coaches make the slightest of contact, their bumpers grazing, or perhaps more aptly, kissing. It’s family day at the Webster Theater.

Dual career households are a fixture of modern American society. Work-related responsibilities compound the challenges of child rearing. The degrees of complexity only increase when mom has been tapped to sweeten the vocals on the Other Ones tour while dad is off headlining his own series of theater dates.Yet despite the resulting additions to already-saturated travel itineraries, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and their infant son Charlie remain euphonious and upbeat.

Filial considerations aside (as if that were possible), this is a significant moment for the musicians. Two days prior to the family reunion at Derek’s Webster gig, Tone Cool/Artemis Records issued Susan’s Wait for Me. As with the Derek Trucks Band’s Joyful Noise, which came out in September, it is a highly anticipated third album, the first studio release in more than four years. The increased notoriety that accrued over that time span has carried additional commercial pressures, with industry execs attempting to guide the performers, somewhat ironically, in opposite musical directions – pushing Derek towards the blues while directing Susan away from the genre. The two artists are coming to terms with these concerns while celebrating their finest recorded efforts yet and reveling in young Charles Kahlil Trucks. On many levels the couple embraces a joyful noise.

The Husband

Nowhere else will you see such a blend of awkward stage presence and musical profundity. The band’s namesake fixes his eyes on his hands or the floor even as he summons the most sublime expressions from his guitar. The lead vocalist possesses range and power yet at times he seems uncertain as to how he should comport himself during the group’s extended improvisations. The drummer is an active force who can also convey restraint even as he embodies his rhythms and pops his tongue out of his mouth. The bassist and keyboard player/ flautist enrich the sound and complete the picture with a ubiquitous smile and a nimbus of hair. Yet any visual impression is swiftly subsumed by the larger performance which articulates its players’ near-messianic zeal to serve the music and the moment. The results are nonpareil.

There is no archetype for the current Derek Trucks Band, which draws from R&B, Latin, Indian, jazz and blues. One is tempted to compare the group to a traditional jazz collective yet Trucks demurs and observes, “we don’t play enough standards.” Instead, when pressed, he’ll characterize the DTB’s slide-infused amalgam as world soul.

“At this moment I really don’t see a model of what we’re trying to do,” Trucks observes. “Hopefully we’re trying to create a model. I don’t think there’s any band that we’re trying to emulate in terms of their sound or their career. Early on there were huge inspirations: you look at the Miles [Davis] quintet and bands that were going for it that way. You want to go for it with that kind of intensity, like Coltrane’s quartet with Elvin [Jones] and McCoy [Tyner] where everyone’s bashing and playing and getting it out.”

While the guitarist is not content to travel familiar paths, his attitude towards innovation is personal and self-driven rather than disjunctive. “I don’t think pushing the envelope is going completely left or completely right. I think it’s a fire and intensity more than people willing to go out or play atonal or free. I think that complete musical integrity coupled with complete fire and belief in what you’re doing can be pushing an envelope more than completely destroying a music.”

Such beliefs led Trucks away from the blues that had garnered him early acclaim as a guitar prodigy (one who first took the stage with the Allman Brothers Band at age eleven on July 11, 1990 at the Florida Theater for “One Way Out” ). Bassist Todd Smallie, who has performed an estimated 1600 shows with the guitarist since 1994, notes, “He’s come a long way but at the same time he hasn’t.He’s always floored me but he’s broadened his horizons every day. I think between Coltrane, Ali Akbar Kahn and Nusrat [Fateh Ali Kahn], that’s what really excited him, when he knew he was going to go for a different sound with the slide.” While this evolution has proven discomfiting to some listeners, it has invigorated the band as a whole. Keyboardist Kofi Burbridge comments, “It’s not the type of music where you have to nail that note, it’s the type of music where everyone’s ready for the new thing, ready for that spin or that twist. That whole mystery about it is a big turn-on to me.” Drummer Yonrico Scott shares this sentiment, as he emphasizes the band’s sense of dynamics – “You don’t have to always slam them with the blues,we like to dip it. Sometimes we dip it so hard it’s under the p.a.”

Integrity and freedom remain the traits that merit the highest commendation from the guitarist. “If it’s a choice between playing something people want to hear that we don’t feel, and sacrificing, then the band will sacrifice,” Trucks affirms. “I don’t worry for a second about this band or what I’m going to do. I’m pretty confident that I’ll be playing whether it’s to 5000 people or 50 people.”

One may argue that it is easy for him to make such an assertion at age 23 while simultaneously holding a high-profile, lucrative gig in the Allman Brothers Band. Still, it is important to recognize that he has been on the road for more than a dozen years. Plus one does get the sense that even if he were not in the ABB he would be quite willing to push that ethos to the brink. Derek’s musical vision is paramount. Thus when Kofi Burbridge agreed to join the group, Trucks purchased him a Clavinet (and later a B-3). Burbridge recalls, “He bought it and said,‘Here take this, it’s yours.’ No one had done that to me in my career. Never had that happened and my reaction was that this guy must be really serious about his sound.” Burbridge has gone on to make significant contributions to the DTB, particularly through his songwriting, and he has a hand in the majority of the tracks that appear on Joyful Noise (one of the standouts, “Like Anyone Else,” is a solo Kofi composition, his first with lyrics).

Yonrico Scott had reached a similar conclusion when he signed on a few years prior to Burbridge. A veteran of Whitney Houston and Peabo Bryson’s touring bands, Scott had also manned the Broadway orchestra pits for The Wiz, Dreamgirls and 5 Guys Named Moe (after that play’s NYC run, he joined the national company as well). Yet with Trucks, he saw talent and intent ( “I could tell he was anointed” ), as well as an opportunity to take an active role in the young group’s musical direction. As a result, he laughs, “I went from playing in Madison Square Garden to playing in 50-seat clubs.”

Scott had reason to reassess his involvement following a near-fatal heart attack on October 21, 2000. “I started feeling bad, like I had heartburn. This was a few days before we were about to leave and go on tour. So I took a nap, drove myself to the hospital and then I woke up twelve days later with a zipper down the middle of my chest. I had a dissecting aortic aneurysm and the doctors said if I was any younger or any older I wouldn’t have made it. If the angle of the tear was any different, I wouldn’t have made it. If I was ten minutes late I wouldn’t have made it. But if I left the planet last year when I was sick I would have been happy knowing I did some good work. There’s not anything I’m ashamed of musically.”

Following Scott’s health crisis the band also weathered the departure of vocalist Javier Colon. Colon had taken over for Bill McKay (now with Leftover Salmon) and carried the band’s sound further away from a blues base into the realm of soul. Eventually, this approach also proved confining (albeit with a sweet falsetto). Colon elected to leave the group for a solo career during the initial Joyful Noise recording sessions, which freed the band to underscore its affinity for world music through the addition of guest vocalists Solomon Burke, Ruben Blades, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Susan Tedeschi.

Current DTB vocalist Mike Mattison, hailed for his facility with the styles of both predecessors, seemed destined to join the group. In the spring of 2002, Derek received independent recommendations and sample discs on the same day from John Snyder and Craig Street, the two producers who have worked with him over the years. Later, while riding on the subway, Trucks thought he recognized a face yet he couldn’t immediately place it. Then he blurted out the name of the prospective singer and Mike responded. “It was too weird – it was many random occurrences stacked on top of each other. Then he came in and the vibes were amazing and the vocals were great, so we’re rolling with it.”

This unique meeting calls to mind the elliptical mysticism of Col. Bruce Hampton, whose band the Aquarium Rescue Unit may well be the DTB’s musical and spiritual forebear. In some respect the lineage is direct through Burbridge, older brother to ARU founding bassist Oteil, who did a stint with that group during its final incarnation. Meanwhile, Scott had logged some time with Hampton’s post-ARU project, the Fiji Mariners. In addition, Todd Smallie, who joined Derek on bass in 1994, came to the band via an open audition facilitated by his association with ARU alums Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe (Smallie retains his enthusiasm for the pair – “Those guys are constantly exploring and to watch them have that fire is so inspiring to me as a young musician” ).

Smallie also recalls that the Colonel’s name was often invoked when the band began to burst beyond its roots in the mid ‘90s, losing some of its original audience in the process. “In the transition we ran a lot of people out of the blues clubs.We used to say we’d given them some Bruce Hampton music and lost them.We’d say we Hampmotized them.”

The Wife

Susan Tedeschi has been Hampmotized herself. She is an acolyte of sufficient degree to record a paean to The Colonel on Wait for Me. The ARU founder and current Codetalker even makes a credited appearance on “Hampmotized.”

Tedeschi laughs when describing her friendship with Hampton. “I often joke that I’ve ruined my career, I’m under his spell.” Her dulcet voice has just a hint of southern lilt, which the Norwell, Massachusetts native may be acquiring via her husband and their southern domicile. “He just pokes so much fun at the institutionalization of music, at the Ization ofmusic.He really gets to the essence of what it should be about, which is being yourself and making the best music that you can.”

She has taken this message to heart. Her 1998 release Just Won’t Burn was something of a surprise mainstream success, yielding two AAA radio staples and eventually achieving gold status. Far more unanticipated was her 1999 Best New Artist Grammy nomination which earned her the right to compete against Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Macy Gray and Kid Rock (alas, Aguilera took home the award).

Some executives at Tedeschi’s label hoped to capitalize on the resulting notoriety by encouraging her to record a follow-up with songs in the Sheryl Crow rock vein. She initially assented but ultimately decided against it, agreeing to assume the recording costs and table any further sessions until she had an opportunity to work on her own terms. “The record company said it was good and I said, ‘Yeah but it wasn’t great.’ They thought it was good enough to release but I didn’t, so I was the one who ate the money. It was worth it to me to wait for something that I could get behind and tour because I wasn’t going to play a lot of those tunes out live. I didn’t feel good about releasing a record where I didn’t want to play the songs.” In the interim, she remained on the road, “and when those pressures died down, I was ready to go into the studio again.”

Tedeschi’s touring allowed time for her band to make collective strides while also permitting her to develop further on guitar. She had focused on voice at the Berklee College of Music and didn’t pick up the instrument with any serious intent until the mid-‘90s. Her cited influences include Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Freddie King,Magic Sam and Wes Montgomery. Charlie Christian likely deserves a place in the canon as well, given the fact that her son is named after the jazz guitarist (Derek reveals, “We were kind of joking around, calling him Django and Charlie when he was in the belly but Charlie just really fit” ). Susan has some pleasant associations with the road as it was while opening the ABB’s 1999 summer tour that she began spending time with Derek (they married in December of 2001 with Sacred Steel master Aubrey Ghent officiating).

As for the new release, Wait for Me is her most diverse and engaging offering yet. Tedeschi produced the disc (with the exception of two tracks credited to her husband) and the arrangements have much more room to breathe. “On the last record I felt I was having to do a lot of belting and having to please a lot of people, trying to go over the top with everything. With this one I wasn’t doing thirty takes trying to get it right. I just did one or two. I tried to make a record and not stress about it too much.”

The disc showcases her command of far more than blues vocals. “Wrapped in the Arms of Another,” an original song she had longed to record for a decade, features just herself and Kofi Burbridge on piano. Her reading of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a revelation, as her clarity invests the classic with new resonance (it also features an evocative organ solo by Jason Crosby). The album closes out with Tedeschi in jazz chanteuse mode, as old friends Paul Rishell and Annie Raines join her for the sultry “Blues on a Holiday.” Indeed, the album is an organic whole with only the horn-abetted first track “Alone,” somewhat misplaced.

Susan, Derek and Charlie in 2003

Derek receives his first-ever producer credit on a pair of songs where Tedeschi is backed by the DTB. “Gonna Move” is an invigorating take on a Paul Pena tune, an artist the couple first encountered through the Genghis Blues documentary. “Feeling Music Brings” is a collective composition originally recorded for a Derek Trucks Band album. Tedeschi contributed the melody and lyrics by which “I wanted to communicate how I needed to get back down to the roots of life and music and forget all the other crap. Just get to the purity of it and start doing it for the right reasons, rather than trying to please other people.”

This ethos led her to jettison any traditional tour plans in support of the album. Instead, she accepted an offer from Phil Lesh to spend a few weeks on the road adding harmony vocals to the Other Ones. “I thought it would be a good challenge for me to learn some harmonies and all those crazy tunes because they have more than a hundred and every night we’re doing different stuff.” (Her favorites to sing on include “Sugaree,” “Shakedown Street,” “Mason’s Children,” and for obvious reasons, “Mr. Charlie.” ) On many nights she walked directly off stage to nurse Charlie before returning, as the Other Ones shows also marked Susan’s first tour as a performer since the birth of her son.

The Son

Susan and Charlie’s visit to the Webster Theater on November 21 was just one instance of family travel that will likely transform many off-days into travels days. A few nights earlier Derek embarked on a similar trip to watch Susan make her debut with the Other Ones. Despite this perpetual movement he remains sanguine, his eyes open wide to “just watching the freshness of my son. He’s always on the go and everything is a marvel to him at all times. When you first hear your baby gut laugh it is such an amazing thing that you can’t believe it’s happening.” Trucks approaches life with such equanimity and hearty spirit that one suspects his attitude will endure.

Yet Tedeschi doesn’t deny there are hardships. “It’s difficult because Derek doesn’t get to see Charlie as much as he should, which isn’t easy, and I’m off by myself traveling. I may have someone out with me but I’m his mom and it’s a lot of work.” However, she tempers this with the observation that “he’s never been in day care. I’ve had him with me the whole time. We’re also fortunate because we get to play music and do what we love to do.”

Plus Charlie has a unique opportunity to engage music, from pounding on Bob Weir’s guitar at soundcheck to perking up at Srinivas’ Rama Sreerama, a favorite from the womb. While most babies respond to song, few have the opportunity to experience such a palette of sounds with immediacy. Charlie was only ten days old when he took in his first snippets of an ABB performance at the Beacon Theatre. Susan mentions that her son now recognizes his father’s guitar tone – “Whenever he hears Derek he knows who it is and gets excited. And when he hears me singing he screams and gets mad because he wants to be up there where I am.” Indeed, while complications still loom, for now, all three members of the household remain “thankful for this feeling that music brings.”