Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks Dig Deep

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Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi are co-leaders of the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

From its 2011 debut, Revelator, to Signs, its current release on Fantasy, the blues-rock group Tedeschi Trucks Band has bared its roots and influences onstage and in the studio. These include the Allman Brothers legacy, which encompasses guitarist Derek Trucks and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, his spouse, directly.

Throughout its career, the band has focused on the idea of entertaining simply by making music. Their concerts include no strobe lights, no filmed bits on a video screen, no backing tracks, no choreography—just a few puffs of smoke here and there. The musicians stand there and play. That’s it.

This works for them, because each concert is informed by what’s on everyone’s mind that day. Solos are all about spontaneity, not regurgitation. Even the three-piece horn section cooks up charts in the moment, conferring among themselves when a groove is emerging and then concocting new riffs or staccato stabs.

“There’s a lot of communication before we go onstage,” said Tedeschi. “If something political is going on, Derek might say to me, ‘Hey, when you start ad-libbing in that Bobby Bland song, “I Pity The Fool,” why don’t you say something about building bridges, not walls?’ So, I’ll add that into my rant and people will react. Or during the immigration controversy I might say, ‘Why don’t we do ‘Lord, Protect My Child’? The lyrics are so moving that people are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, how can someone take a kid away from its parents?’ They might feel more sympathy and empathy for each other, because the music makes it real. We’re not trying to be political—but we are trying to be human.”

Their recordings are similarly of the moment, with each song born from whatever is going on in bandmembers’ lives. For example, feelings of love and loss permeate Signs. The album’s last track is specifically an elegy for their close friend and mentor, Col. Bruce Hampton (1947–2017). Titled “The Ending,” it stands out from the rest of the album in its simplicity, with Tedeschi’s sensitive vocal backed by Trucks on National guitar and Oliver Woods on Trucks’ 1930s vintage Gibson L-00.

“If I feel a connection to a song, sometimes I have to stop myself from crying as I sing,” Tedeschi said. “But the words in ‘The Ending’ are more like a laugh/cry for me. There are joyful parts of the lyric, like, ‘His guitar is laughing, filling the room.’ He was so silly and over the top that it doesn’t feel sad to think about him. Really, the song reminds me of so many good things about him.”

Ironically, on Feb. 15, the day Signs was released (and before the DownBeat interview), the Tedeschi Trucks Band suffered another loss. Band member Kofi Burbridge—who contributed keyboards and flute to the album, and who also played in Hampton’s band—died in Atlanta, following a series of heart problems.

But there are plenty of uplifting moments on the new record. Whether brushed by strings on “Strengthen What Remains” or driven by a steady crescendo and a blaze of wailing guitar on “Still Your Mind,” Signs draws from the uncertainties of our time and turns them into messages of hope and assurance. “Mike Mattison [one of TTB’s three backup singers] wrote ‘Strengthen What Remains’ about his aunt,” Tedeschi said. “Here’s a woman who worked really hard all her life. She had to give up her baby when she was really young. The opening line is ‘A world where dreams come true wasn’t meant for you.’ It’s so sad.

“But it goes on to tell about how beautiful a life she had. Maybe everything isn’t always perfect. Not everything works out exactly as you want. But it’s not that bad at the end of the day. So, strengthen what you have left. That sentiment is so fitting now, when it feels like we’re all at the lowest of the low. But we’re gonna get through this. It’s gonna get better.” DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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