It’s fascinating to hear guitarist Derek Trucks, an acclaimed slide-guitar man, songwriter and 15-year member of the Allman Brothers, speak admirably about fellow musicians. No matter if it’s a new bandmate, a longtime colleague or a bona fide American songwriting legend, there’s always a sturdy sense of love, respect and acceptance in his tone.
Speaking from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., where he and his wife and songwriting/bandleading partner Susan Tedeschi reside and record with their current project, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Trucks sounds as giddy chatting about his group’s newly acquired bassist as he does about sharing a stage with Bob Dylan at a pre-Grammy Awards benefit show earlier in the month.
The last time the Tedeschi Trucks Band came to town (Jan. 17, 2014), they headlined the North Charleston Performing Arts Center with newly enlisted bassist Tim Lefebvre, a studio and road dude who’d previously played with an assortment of rock, pop, blues and soul projects.
Lefebvre had been in the Tedeschi Trucks Band for only a few weeks, but he clicked very well with the rhythm section through renditions of classics by the likes of Freddie King, Elmore James and Otis Redding as well as the latest material from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s most recent studio collection, “Made Up Mind,” and the rest of the Tedeschi/Trucks repertoire. It was a soulful, graceful, dynamic performance with a loving vibe across the stage.
“From the time we made the last record to now, the band has taken a massive jump,” Trucks says. “The biggest change for the band was welcoming Tim Lefebvre as the bass player. He came on board around December of 2013. That connection has been huge, Tim is a total monster. It’s one of those things where you didn’t know what you were looking for until it’s there. It was the missing piece from the time we formed the band. A great fit.”
Only a few weeks ago, on Feb. 6, Trucks and Tedeschi found themselves at the Los Angeles Convention Center in California as part of an all-star roster at the MusiCares Person of the Year gala honoring Bob Dylan; the annual benefit raises funds for MusiCares’ Emergency Financial Assistance and Addiction Recovery programs. The legendary man of the hour had personally requested that Trucks and Tedeschi perform with him on his song “Million Miles,” from the 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” during the event.
“It’s rejuvenating to experience something like that,” Trucks says of the Dylan show. “The fact that Bob Dylan requested me and Susan to play with him and that he chose the song he wanted us to perform — it was really something awesome. We added our thing to it and played it the way we thought it should have been played, and it went over well with the audience. We hung out with Willie Nelson and Neil Young right after the show. Everyone was so cool and comfortable. It’s crazy, looking back on it.”
Whether it’s a huge concert like the MusiCares event, a two-night stint at a roomy hall like the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., an open-air festival like Bonnaroo or a cozy dive bar, the 11-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band feels comfortable and confident on stage together, regardless.
“With this band, I like playing any venue,” Susan Tedeschi says of the hard-touring band. “If it’s a festival with beautiful weather and a positive community vibe with musical friends whom you don’t get to see all the time, it can be amazing. Also, it’s great playing some of the performing arts centers because you’re able to play well with good, nicely controlled sound for a listening audience. I also love playing in a roadhouse bar as long as we can all fit in there.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band toured heavily in North America and Europe throughout 2014 in support of the soul/blues/gospel music of “Made Up Mind,” and they look forward to doing their thing when they return to the Lowcountry this week for another concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.
The past two years have been the busiest and most artistically creative for Trucks and Tedeschi. They initially assembled a recording and touring ensemble as the Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2011, enlisting skillful players and composing bluesy, riffy originals with Allman Brothers-meets-Bonne Raitt grooves and tones. Over the next few years, the project slowly took shape and stretched into a solid 11-piece soul-rock band.
Bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge, notoriously talented brothers and veterans of the national jam-rock scene, were original members alongside drummers J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell, all of whom contributed to the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s official debut album, “Revelator,”(released in the summer of 2011.
In 2013, the Burbridge brothers, Johnson and Greenwell and a horn section comprised of Kebbi Williams (sax), Maurice Brown (trumpet) and Saunders Sermons (trombone) went into the studio for the sessions of “Made Up Mind.”
Vocalists Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers provided extra harmonies and melodies, as well.
By the beginning of 2014, Lefebvre had worked himself in nicely as the full-time bass player.
“Everybody is in it, looking in the same direction, excited to perform and to write new tunes,” Trucks says of his current bandmates. “We use sound checks to write tunes. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of constructive criticism and healthy communication. Everybody enjoys the process. One of the things I can say from being on the road for 20-plus years with a bunch of different bands is that that’s about the rarest thing you can find: where everyone’s intensely focused on the work at hand and genuinely on the same page.”
In early 2014, Trucks and longtime Allman Brothers singer-guitarist Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule fame simultaneously announced their plans to exit the Allman Brothers by the end of the year. Haynes had been contributing to the band for 25 years, while Trucks had been a part of the Allmans since 1999.
In a press releases issued last January, Haynes and Trucks jointly wrote, “We will be forever grateful for the opportunity and the experience, and for the love, enthusiasm and support of the incredible fans. We are both preparing to dig even deeper into our various creative and musical endeavors.”
“For me, it’s been liberating,” Trucks says of his amicable split from the Allmans. “I feel like we were able to land that massive ship safely, and the last few shows were pretty magical. It took a lot of effort and energy to get there — to where the music and the focus needed to be. After my last show, I felt like I could walk from it and feel perfectly OK with it.
“I felt completely exhausted right after the last few shows — in a way I’d never felt before,” he adds. “I didn’t realize I was carrying such a weight for so long. But I respect that music and believe in it; I really wanted it to go out correctly. I felt like we were able to do that. It feels like I’ve turned the page now. It’s a new day.”
Throughout the rest of 2014 and in recent months, Trucks and Tedeschi have been able to travel, write, record and collaborate with bandmates and friends with few distractions or worries.
“It’s when it’s not forced that it works best, and you can only achieve that by hitting the road, living together and making records together,” Trucks says. “It’s a bit deeper with a real living, breathing road band.”
On stage these days, it’s tricky to peg the Tedeschi Trucks Band with a neat, tidy musical description. Their flexible, fluid mix of styles touches on much more than blues-tinged rock ’n’ roll. With Tedeschi’s rich voice at the forefront, much of their “Made Up Mind” collection drifts from slow-rolling gospel-rock to Americana ballads territory to nasty-toned blues raunch and back.
“There’s a confidence that we’ve worked into over the last few years,” Trucks says. “There was a high level of trust between everyone going into the making of ‘Made Up Mind.’ It was an exciting place to be, musically. It’s not always easy to get there.”
According to Trucks, the band’s variety of styles and approaches came naturally after heavy gigging, intensive demo sessions and sound checks over the past two years. They seem to be developing an even more unique sound as a collective.
“At times, you have to step back and ask yourself, ‘Alright, what is the sound of this band?’ You wonder about the strengths and weaknesses and which direction you should go,” he says. “Eventually, everyone instinctively knows their role in the band and when to add and when to lay back. With a band this big, that’s a huge part of it. It’s much different from playing in a trio or your own small combo where you’re used to carrying a lot of weight.
“You really bleed it when you really care about the music in that way — when you care deeply about the music that you’re making and sending out there,” he adds. “There’s no one telling you how it should go, and you’re doing it simply to make great music and hopefully move some people along the way.”