Tedeschi Trucks Band: A Joyful Noise (Cover Story Excerpt)

Dean Budnick on January 26, 2016

Here’s an excerpt from our January_February 2016 cover story. Click here to read the full piece, later posted to the site.

It’s 30 minutes to showtime, and Derek Trucks is uncomfortable. 

This is not to say that he’s anxious about the events about to unfold onstage before a capacity house at the ornate Providence Performing Arts Center. He’s good-natured and imperturbable as the minutes count down until the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band will embark on their third show of a brief early-December tour. 

Instead, Trucks is experiencing some physical discomfort, the result of a major surgery two weeks earlier. The series of horizontal scars across his torso attests to the gravity of his recent operation, in which surgeons at the Mayo Clinic removed a 4-inch benign tumor from the base of his spine. He entered the hospital in his native Jacksonville, Fla., on the day he returned from a November European tour in order to give himself the maximum recovery time (albeit a scant two weeks) before the December dates.

Still, Trucks acknowledges that he did not fully anticipate the physical toll on his body, wrought from live performance. “The last four or five days before I left home, I would get up, put a guitar on and walk around the house for 30-40 minutes just to feel it out. I wouldn’t think that just going under the knife would wipe out my stamina overnight, but the first show that we did [at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre] was a two-set show, and toward the end of the second set, I started to get a little woozy and thought, ‘Well, that’s different.’ I also had a finger lock up on me, which I’ve never had happen. I guess since my body was going into healing mode, the other stuff  didn’t work quite right.” 

Yet even in the face of that locked finger, he maintained his equanimity. “It worked out,” he adds with a laugh, “because I figured, ‘I’ve got these nine other ones that work fine.’ But for a moment there, I was thinking, ‘What is happening? Oh, shit!’ The shows were fun, though. I was surprised by how good it felt to play, to the point where I would get lost in the moment, and I wouldn’t realize that I was leaning in and all the wounds are right where the guitar sits.”

His wife, TTB vocalist and fellow guitar player Susan Tedeschi reflects: “Derek is just a trooper. Most people would have cancelled. I know people who have cancelled for much less—for hair gel in their eye, or if their voice is weak or something silly. So, to have major surgery and be out touring, just shows you who he is, and how determined he is for this band and how much he loves this group. He’s not out there trying to make a buck; he’s trying to do something significant. He’s a great leader, and he shows us that it’s worth the hard work. He pulls us closer together.”

Both Trucks and Tedeschi have done just that during a banner year in which they recalibrated the roles and personnel in their big band, crossed the nation with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings on their Wheels of Soul summer tour, and embraced their spiritual origins by performing a special tribute to Mad Dogs & Englishmen at Lockn’, all the while tuning up their third studio album, Let Me Get By—set
for release in late January—which TTB’s members uniformly suggest reflects a new vitality and vision for the group.

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s 2015 began much like the previous few Januarys, as the group assembled at Swamp Raga Studios, located behind Derek and Susan’s house in Jacksonville. Historically, these sessions have allowed the band to reconnect and prepare for their mid-month appearance at Florida’s Sunshine Music Festival, which the group has anchored since the event began in 2012.
For a few years, the band performed on New Year’s Eve, but they gave up the spectacle—and payday—back in 2011. “Halloween and New Year’s have become such a circus, especially in our scene,” Trucks explains. “We would put so much time and energy into working things up and then we’d look out front and everyone was hammered. Something was lost—it was not this symbiotic thing. I’d rather

be home with my family enjoying the new year. We don’t take many breaks, and lately, mid-December to mid-January has been the no-go zone. It’s a nice time of year in North Florida—it’s cool but not too cold. Maybe, eventually, we’ll start doing a hometown New Year’s again, but I felt like it was getting a little silly. For some groups, it’s great, and they thrive off  of that energy. But I don’t like watching people vomit in the crowd during the show. I played frat parties when I was a kid. I’ve done that.”

Trucks, who turned 36 in June, has long moved past the era when he was hailed as a prodigy, typically lumped in with such blues-guitar tyros as Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. (During this period, the media typically linked them in such a way that one can imagine Trucks recoiling from any number of proposed photo shoots, in which they were all to be dressed as Wild West gunslingers, gripping vintage guitars across their chaps.) He married Susan Tedeschi in 2001 and they welcomed their son, Charlie, the next year, followed by daughter Sophia in 2004. The two musicians then juggled solo careers, even as Trucks balanced careers within his solo career, finding time for the Derek Trucks Band, the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton’s touring group. The Tedeschi Trucks Band came together in 2010 after they tested the waters with a blended Soul Stew Revival tour in the summer of 2008. The then-11-piece group, with all of its attendant expenses, defiantly elevated musical intentions above financial considerations.

The band released two studio albums and a live record with Sony, winning a Best Blues Album Grammy for their debut, 2011’s Revelator. Still, a major-label deal comes with sales expectations independent of critical approbation and swelling live appeal. So when the TTB returned to Swamp Raga early in 2015, they were free agents. In response, the band made a commitment to close the circle and deliver a record on their own terms, produced by Trucks, and recorded by longtime engineer and stage tech Bobby Tis. For the first time on a Tedeschi Trucks Band record, the material was all written in house. (Doyle Bramhall II, an extended family member who first toured with Trucks in Clapton’s band  and played on this past summer’s Wheels of Soul dates, joined the group for some sessions.) 

“For our second record [2013’s Made Up Mind], the label seemed pretty insistent about bringing in other writers,” says Mike Mattison, who shares backing vocal duties. (Until the recent addition of singer Alecia Chakour, he and Mark Rivers were The Pips to Tedeschi’s Gladys Knight.) “They were certainly talented, but in my opinion, there are about 12 people called in such situations and that took us away from what made us unique, which is a large band full of di erent perspectives. So on some level, there was a feeling that this material wasn’t altogether ours, that we were a huge-moving cover band. And so it made sense to rethink it and tack back, particularly with such a big group, to keep everybody focused and cohesive and in it.

“This record goes places and that’s because it’s coming from us. We’re the source of it. We didn’t have to position ourselves for singles or hits. With this band, I don’t think that will ever happen, so let’s take that thinking o the table and just do what we do. That’s important because it’s very freeing.”  

Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell, one half of the TTB’s drumming tandem and a veteran of Tedeschi’s touring out t, affirms: “The band has been around for five or six years, and we’re really just now learning how to play with each other. I’m excited about the new direction because we’re learning how to write together and that’s another whole thing. We have guys who can play out in the avant-garde or inside, and Derek has had to focus this behemoth. The question then becomes: How are we going to truly create our sound? And the way you do that is by writing together. That’s where you develop your stamp, your mark in music.”

Trucks helped to initiate the collaborative songwriting process by encouraging everyone to record any interesting jams that emerged during their soundchecks, which became particularly lively after bass player Tim Lefebvre officially joined in the fall of 2013. Lefebvre, a self-described “fast-talking Yankee in this Southern band,” worked with Wayne Krantz for many years and, through the bassist’s association with drummer Mark Guiliana, appears on another anticipated January release, David Bowie’s Blackstar.

“The vibe was incredible, having somebody like that sing with you,” he says of working with Bowie on the Blackstar sessions. “We were in the same room and there’s not much separation in The Magic Shop, where we recorded. If it was anybody else, then I would have blown o the other project, but with Bowie, it’s history. I had to keep it under wraps, although I told the band. Derek and Susan were so cool when it came to scheduling, and I’ll always be thankful for that.” 

As for Let Me Get By, eventually acquired by the Concord Music Group for release through its Fantasy imprint, Lefebvre explains, “A song like ‘Laugh About It’ came out of a soundcheck jam, so even though I know it’s in 7/4, it makes sense to me and it really resonates with this group of players. You can hear it in the tone of the record. When you co-write, it becomes more personal for you—you feel like you’re invested, and because the band is your family, even with the songs you didn’t write, you feel like you’re completely in it.”
Tedeschi and Trucks were so willing to follow the muse in this collaborative endeavor that in two instances on the record, Mattison contributes lead vocals. As he describes it, “To my mind, when I was singing ‘Crying Over You’ and ‘Right On Time,’ I was just singing demos for Susan. Then they said to me: ‘That’s good, do you want to keep it?’ I said, ‘OK,’ and because of the way it happened, I didn’t overly craft the performance. It just owed naturally, which again, is part of the story of the record.” 

Tedeschi explains that her own vocals took on newfound nuance and bite with her husband in the producer’s chair. “Over the years, I’ve never really had anybody produce me. It was always really frustrating because I had been told that these were great producers, but they never really worked with me on my vocals. Derek is the first one to actually have the guts to say: ‘Hey, maybe you should rethink this’ or ‘Maybe don’t sing this so belty’ or ‘Try this.’ I really appreciate it because I have somebody who I really care about who is giving me good advice, and I know I can trust him because he hears stuff that other people just don’t.”

That’s not to suggest that the a able singer is a pushover when it comes to the studio. “There are certain lyrics that are cheesy that I just won’t sing. I am funny about that but, thankfully, we don’t write those kinds. Years ago, I had an old band member who wrote a song for me and it was talking about how I should wear a red dress and it was Valentine’s Day and all this stuff, and I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’” She laughs. “I just can’t sing about how I’m going to put on a sexy dress for you… A song has to have some type of a meat to it, some kind of meaning. It can’t just be fluff  and it isn’t with this band.”

Mattison carries a wry and often somewhat pessimistic worldview that is reflected in some of the lyrics on the new record—in “Crying Over You,” he sings, “If the grass is greener, I think it might be chemical”—but he is altogether sanguine and sincere in his assessment of Let Me Get By. “I’m not running down the first two records. I’m not saying that the songs on those first two records aren’t great.” (Indeed, one of the songs that he contributed to Revelator, “Midnight In Harlem,” is destined to endure as a standard.) “But I think that having that sense of ownership when you’re a touring band out there every night is essential. This feels like our first record. It feels like our statement and we own it and it’s exciting.” 

To read the rest of this feature on Tedeschi Trucks Band, as well as stories on Mike Gordon, Tortoise, Blitzen Trapper, Lettuce and others, subscribe here.