It certainly wasn’t by design, but “Signs,” the new album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, may go down as a lasting tribute to the contributions Kofi Burbridge made to this dynamic 12-person group.
A songwriting contributor who played keyboards and flute in the group, Burbridge stepped up his role in the making of "Signs” and left an indelible mark on the project.
“I think the thing that really sets this album apart, in my opinion, is a lot of the work that Kofi did on this record,” singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi said in a mid-May phone interview. “A lot of his keyboard work and his flute playing is just incredible. But then he wrote all of these amazing string arrangements. And we had four players from the Jacksonville Symphony come and he conducted them and he put out the charts in front of them and it was like excitement and it was perfect and it was incredible. That just brought a new depth, I think, to the songs.”
The several songs with Burbridge’s string arrangements on “Signs” indeed add rich new dimensions to the band’s sound. For example, on “I’m Gonna Be There,” the strings heighten the Philly Soul feel of this sleek mid-tempo song and add beauty to the lovely ballads “Strengthen What Remains” and “When I Will Begin.”
Sadly, Burbridge passed away on Feb. 15 — the same day “Signs” was released — from complications stemming from a 2017 heart attack. It’s been a big loss for the band, Tedeschi said, not just for his musical contributions, but on a personal level.
“It’s been really tough. It’s just one of those things nobody expected,” she said. “It was just too much for his body to take. It’s one thing to make it through the surgeries and start on the road to recovery, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent.”
“He was really young. He was only 57,” Tedeschi said. “The world lost a musical genius, that is for sure, and a very, very sweet person.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band has soldiered on through this difficult period, and the band has been buoyed by having its share of very successful shows and the presence of two new band members: bassist Brandon Boone (replacing Tim Lefebvre) and keyboardist/singer Gabe Dixon (replacing Burbridge).
The group is scheduled to play Friday at the Volvo Car Stadium on Daniel Island with Blackberry Smoke and Shovels & Rope.
“In the midst of all of the horrible things, we’ve been really blessed with some really amazing people that make it a little easier,” Tedeschi said of the newcomers.
Pushing forward through adversity is nothing new for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which has developed a vibrant and diverse sound, a strong musical chemistry and become financially viable, no small feats for a group this large.
Formed in 2010, Tedeschi and guitarist Derek Trucks (who had been in the Allman Brothers Band, fronted his own Derek Trucks Band and played in Eric Clapton’s touring group) took the inspiration for the Tedeschi Trucks Band from Joe Cocker’s free-wheeling Mad Dogs and Englishmen unit of the early 1970s.
Now 12 members strong, the Tedeschi Trucks Band features not only Tedeschi, Trucks, Dixon and Boone, but drummers/percussionists Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, the horn section of Kebbi Williams (saxophone), Ephraim Owens (trumpet) and Elizabeth Lea (trombone), occasional lead vocalist and harmony vocalist Mike Mattison and harmony vocalists Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour.
“Signs,” the fourth album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, was written and recorded during breaks in touring over an 18-month period. Its songs sharpen the mix of rock, blues and soul that has been the trademark of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and include some of the band’s strongest songwriting.
Lyrically, many songs on “Signs” pack an emotional punch. There’s a topical side to the album with tunes like punchy soul-kissed rocker “Signs/High Times” and the multifaceted rocker “Shame,” which offer looks at the jumbled and highly charged social/political/environmental climate of today’s world.
Other songs are more personal. The acoustic ballad “The Ending” was written to honor one of the musical mentors and closest friends of Trucks and Tedeschi: Col. Bruce Hampton, whose various groups over four decades served as training grounds for a host of musicians. The Colonel passed away in 2017.
The delicate ballad “Strengthen What Remains” was written about Trucks’ late aunt. “I’m Gonna Be There” and “Walk Through This Life” bring moments of optimism to “Signs” telling of hard-won promises to persevere through hardships and stay committed to a relationship.
On tour, the Tedeschi Trucks Band varies its set lists from show to show, but Tedeschi said several of the new songs usually get played, along with a rotating cross-section of tunes from the band’s first three albums and some covers.
“We’re kind of mixing it up, doing different stuff, trying to keep stuff fresh,” she said. “That way it keeps it really fresh for the audience. They never know what they’re going to get — and neither do we. It’s been really good.”