LIVE: Tedeschi Trucks Band @ SPAC, 7/3/17
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Derek Trucks is the latest in a long line of talented performers who not only introduce a mass audience to the wonders of indigenous American music, but tip the scales, nudge the paradigm, and force a re-evaluation of the very definition of several fundamental musical terms.
Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all caused society to reset its collective psyche in terms of what they hear in their heads when genres like blues, folk, country, jazz, soul and R&B come to mind. If you haven’t already, you can add former Allman Brothers lead guitarist Derek Trucks to that list as co-leader with his wife Susan Tedeschi of the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band currently on its Wheels of Soul summer tour.
The group outgunned every regional fireworks demonstration on their Fourth of July Eve concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the third stop of a 21-date month-long run across the country.
It would be the height of hyperbole to say that Derek makes the 12 members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the two opening acts, Hot Tuna and the Wood Brothers, inconsequential to his guitar playing, but he comes as close as any act I’ve seen including Dylan when he went electric in 1965 or Stevie Ray Vaughan with Double Trouble in the mid-’80s.
Live at The Fox, the band’s current album, comes across like a real American gothic orchestra, a modern version of such big bands as Johnny Otis in 1953 or B. B. King in the early ’70s. But in concert, Trucks rolls over the band like a Peterbilt 18-wheeler rolling through the Appalachians.
Consider this. He has a three-piece horn section powered by veterans whose credits include Eric Clapton, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and John Legend; three back-up vocalists fronted by Mike Mattison of Scrapomatic and a veteran of the Derek Trucks Band; two drummers whose credits include Tedeschi’s previous band, Col. Bruce Hampton, John Mayer and Doyle Bramhall II; and bass player Tim Lefebvre, whose session credits include David Bowie, John Mayer, Chris Botti and Elvis Costello.
And, of course, we haven’t even mentioned Trucks’ wife and co-bandleader Susan Tedeschi, whose banshee vocals take up the slack of Trucks’ Achilles’ heel. He doesn’t sing. Ask Jeff Beck what that can do to a band leader’s career.
Tedeschi’s guitar playing for the most part gets lost in the mix. I get the impression that Truck and Tedeschi enjoy running out the string and letting their creative kites fly into the clouds, but his experience with the Allman Brothers (since meeting them through his uncle Butch Trucks as a child) checkmates Susan’s academic credentials from Berklee College of Music.
With all that’s going on, Trucks simply obliterates everyone else on stage. He does use the fire power of the band to accelerate on the straightaways but keeps their power in reserve on the dangerous curves where he simply overpowers them with his playing, calling upon an encyclopedic knowledge of American musical history. He’s like Clapton in his versatility. He’s like fellow Allman Brothers alum Warren Haynes in his aggressive assaults. But he bests both in his bending of notes and an unparalleled dexterity with a slide that he applies with the finesse of an Appalachian acoustic guitar picker as much as an electric guitarslinger.
The Tedeschi Trucks SPAC setlist reads like the syllabus for American Music 101 from Sleepy John Estes’ “Leavin’ Trunk” (he was born in 1899) to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (written in 1909 with the most popular version released by the Carter Family in 1935), “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” (from the Allman Brothers’ 1972 LP Eat a Peach) and “Anyday” by Derek & the Dominos, which opened the SPAC 12-song set.
All that is supplemented by originals from this band’s own repertoire and Trucks’ and Tedeschi’s individual bands before that, including “Don’t Know What It Means,” “Laugh About It” and “It’s So Heavy” and “Get What You Deserve.” And as versatile as that set list is, more than 75% of the songs presented are different from the numbers performed on the first night of the tour in New Hampshire.
“Like it or not, we’re gonna play some songs,” announced Jorma Kaukonen, only half tongue in cheek at the beginning of electric Hot Tuna’s opening set. They began precisely at 7pm and played a 45-minute set, appropriate for an opening act, but hardly normal for an act whose legacy extends further back than that of the Allman Brothers where Trucks honed his chops.
With vocals half-buried under the mix, Kaukonen and his childhood friend and bass player Jack Casady did a bold and bodacious quick run through a nasty but nice rocking set highlighted by “I Wish You Would,” a 1955 Billy Boy Arnold classic blues that the Yardbirds turned into a “rave-up” on their debut single in 1964. Kaukonen recalled the last time he’d played the SPAC stage was 1989 with the Jefferson Airplane reunion. Justin Guip supported on drums.
Second on the bill, the Wood Brothers turned melodic instruments into percussive vehicles: Chris Wood slapping his upright bass, Jano Rix applying drum brushes to his guitar body, and long-haired Oliver Wood doubling on guitar and lead vocals, looking like he just stepped out of Buffalo Springfield. The highlight of their set was a version of The Band’s “Ophelia.” The Wood Brothers have performed at several Midnight Rambles at the barn of the late Band drummer Levon Helm. Chris Wood brought the crowd to attention with a wiggle-wobble dance around his bass, looking like one of those 20-foot-high stick figure balloons that wave wildly in the wind in front of car dealerships.
The Allman Brothers legacy of soldiering on in the face of personal tragedy continues as the baton is passed to the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Derek’s cousin Butch Trucks shot himself to death in January. Gregg Allman died of natural causes in May, and Tedeschi Trucks keyboardist Kofi Burbridge had a heart attack 10 days before the start of this Wheels of Soul tour and was replaced by Carey Frank.
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND SET LIST
Anyday (Derek & the Dominos)
I Want More
Don’t Know What It Means
Laugh About It
It’s So Heavy
Ball and Chain
Get What You Deserve (Derek Trucks Band)
Leaving Trunk (Sleepy John Estes)
Volunteered Slavery (Rahsaan Roland Kirk)
I Pity the Fool (Bobby “Blue” Bland)
Let Me Get By
Soul Sacrifice (Santana)
Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More (Allman Brothers Band)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (traditional)
Made Up Mind