Last year’s Revelator marked the arrival of an American roots music powerhouse: the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Assembled by Gibson SG-playing dynamo Derek Trucks and blues singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi – popular music’s most soulful married couple – the group has cut a broad, worldwide swath through the realms of blues, rock, soul, gospel and even jazz since first taking the stage. And for good reason. Large ensembles of earthy top-notch players like the 11 musicians in the Tedeschi Trucks Band haven’t existed since the ’60s and early ’70s, when Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett led Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and Joe Cocker fronted the Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
The group includes Trucks’ Allman Brothers compadre Oteil Burbridge on bass and Oteil’s brother Kofi on keys and flute, percussionists/drummers J.J. Johnson, Tyler Greenwell and Kebbi Williams, vocalists Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers, and hornmen Maurice Brown and Saunders Sermons.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s high level of musicianship and elevated profile were acknowledged this year by their Grammy win for Best Blues Album. And at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis earlier this month, TTB swept Album of the Year and Band of the Year, and Trucks received the prestigious Gibson Guitar Award for his six-string mastery. He also participated in a goose-pimple raising duo performance at the Blues Music Awards, playing resonator guitar while Susan sang.
We caught up with Trucks by phone at his and Tedeschi’s Florida home, where their tailored studio overlooks a swamp. The subject of our conversation: the just-released Everybody’s Talkin’, a new live, two-disc set that captures the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s blazing onstage sound. The album is about displaying the group’s energy, experimentalism and pure ability to jam. Several tunes, including stellar takes on Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” and the group’s own “Love Has Something Else to Say,” stretch between 10 and 15 minutes. And a year of hard touring has spring-wound a new intensity into the band’s arrangement. That’s especially apparent in Trucks’ playing. Several of the solos he unleashes – on the title track and the opening “Bound For Glory,” in particular – are among the most vicious sonic emissions of his career, throwing caution, tonality and even melody to the wind.
We began by discussing this road-won evolution:
How has the band evolved since Revelator was released in June 2011?
It was such a new band when we did the record that we all knew once we hit the road it would take on a different life. When Susan and me put these musicians together we had extremely high hopes, but unless you get on the road and gig, the chemistry isn’t going to form. The band became a real force about halfway through the year.
It’s an 11-piece band so it’s about everybody finding their roles, and once the material becomes second-nature you can start interpreting it differently every night. The drummers had never played with Oteil and Kofi, so the rhythm section had to develop its own language. And me and Susan – it took us a little while to find the comfort zone, where you fully unleash what you do without stepping on the other person. Everybody in this group is really respectfully, musically, so it was a matter of everybody finding out how we all fit together.
In the middle of the European tour we did about a year ago, the group really felt like it became a band. You could feel things shift. It got a few layers deeper, and when we got back to the States it just felt like things were flowing full on.
At that point I decided I wanted to document our live show, and put the same energy into it we did recording our studio record. It’s easy to record a live show and put it out, but to really make it sound right and hold up over the years the recording has to be as spectacular as the playing. We went at it full-court-press and figured out what gear we needed to take on the road from the studio and who we needed on board to record it, and that paid off. When we were mixing and mastering the record I was pumped on how great the sounds were and how great the performances were. It also gave me a deeper insight into the band, taking a step back and really listening to the performances this way.
What was the process of recording Everybody’s Talkin’ like?
When we first started talking about the live record, I asked Bobby Tease, the engineer who helped us put our studio at home together, “What classic record would you like to record? Live at the Fillmore, Donnie Hathaway Live…?” You give him a task like that and he’s got a thousand ideas. We talked about doing the old-school record truck, where a truck comes to a few gigs and you record on tape. That would probably limit us to doing one or two shows. Another option was to bring a lot of gear from our studio – the great analog stuff – in racks. He also got some new gear that wasn’t available to the general public that he had access to. We kind of went overboard. We ended up carrying our own console along and getting an extra trailer with a couple guys to run it. We recorded 12 shows. I wanted to have a lot to choose from, so we did a whole leg of a tour. We ended up using three of the shows pretty evenly, three or four tunes from each. And then we spent time listening and mixing to be sure it felt seamless from track to tack, so everything set right and felt right. It felt like more than just a live record.
Is there a section in the band that’s surprised you, in terms of its evolution?
Both the horn section and Mike and Mark, the singers, because this moving and dancing thing developed, where sometimes the backing vocalists function like horn players, and the horn players function like backing vocalists. Their roles began to flow back and forth, really freely. Sometimes musicians can get locked in to playing parts, but those guys improvise as sections.
You’re compelled to have a serious work ethic by the dimensions of this band, aren’t you?
To make a band this big work, you’ve gotta work… so we stay out on the road a lot. It’s a lot of mouths to feed, so we tour pretty hard and the music gets better for it. You do have to build in the right amount of time to write and add tunes, not to mention your lives. It’s nothing like I toured in the past with my solo group, where often we’d be on the road up to 300 days a year, but we stay pretty busy.
How do you work in new material for an 11-piece band on the road?
Sometimes you hear a tune and it’s right, and everybody already knows it as a reference point, or you write while you get off the road for a break. There’s always soundcheck. Everybody’s talented enough that you can give people their parts at soundcheck and work it up. It might take a few soundchecks until it makes the show. We do that quite a bit. We were touring Japan at the first of the year and adding tunes on the fly, and sometimes standards, like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” are better off without being rehearsed. It’s like, “Here’s the groove. Now let’s go.”
Anytime we begin a tour in the Southeast, close to home, we try to build in a few days before the tour starts to meet up at the studio and see what we can work in.
A lot of the songs on the live album are very long. Do you find arrangements tend to get longer as you play them out?
They do, especially with the phase this band is in now. We enjoy everybody getting to say their piece, so with 11-people on stage there’s a lot of solos to pass around. And everybody is so good it’s never to fill time; it’s soling because everybody has something to say. When I got done putting together this live record I laughed at how long the songs were, thinking about how the record label was going to have trouble finding a single. We decided early on that the band would be what it was gonna be, not a band defined by small sound bites. The idea was to make it as great a band as we could make it, and whatever shape that took, fine. And it’s been steady growth.
When we put the band together we knew it was a stretch and that maybe after a year we would determine it wasn’t going to sustain itself and we’d have to go back to the drawing board and do a smaller group, but the momentum is carrying, so that’s a good feeling.
You’ve also won a Grammy for Best Blues Album and, at the Blues Music Awards, Album of the Year and Band of the Year, and you received the Gibson Guitar Award at the Blues Music Awards. That’s affirming.
As a band we never go into making a record thinking about accolades or awards, but it is a nice cherry on top when you already feel like it’s working and you feel strongly about the records and the band as a whole. When you cap the year off with that recognition, you feel good about it.
There’s a new original song on the album: “Nobody’s Free.” It’s got a psychedelic power-rock kind of thing going on, which alternates with beautiful balladic passages where Susan uses some of the warmest tones in her vocal range. Tell me about it.
That’s one of the first tunes we wrote when we were putting the band together. We were doing a lot of small group writing sessions. There’s a few original tunes lying around from then and we enjoy playing “Nobody’s Free” live. When we wrote it we didn’t even know how big the band would be.
Do you feel being in the band on the road had changed your own playing? I hear solos from you on this album that sound expressionistic, almost like free jazz, pushing the envelope of tonality and really coming on strong, noisy and explosive.
There are times when, on a tune like “Nobody’s Free,” you have Oteil and Kofi and J.J. going off in all kinds of directions, so it’s appropriate. It’s fun to just pull the release on a tune like that and just air it out. With this band there are so many styles and attitudes we’re hitting, and when we hit something we hit it really hard. When you have those moments of release it’s important for them to be pretty absolute. The other part of playing in this band is you can really play what you want to in a song and try to hone in on the space and melody even more, like the solo on “Revelator,” where I really had to serve the tune.
Have you listened to many free improvising guitarists over the years?
Yeah, quite a few. I’ve always been a fan of James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock, and Derek Bailey. They are unsung heroes. That style has a small fan base that I’m counted amongst. There have been long van rides where I’ve tortured everybody else in the band making them listen to hours of Derek Bailey records.
When James Blood Ulmer sat in with the Allman Brothers, that was one of my favorite sit-ins. I remember for the first half of the show I just couldn’t get off the ground musically, and then Blood came and sat in and we did two tunes. He was kind of in that John Lee Hooker meets Ornette Coleman blues phase he had. The way he played and the feel he put out was so liberating I felt like the shackles were gone and I could really play again. I find that music liberating.
Have you changed anything about your gear since Revelator came out?
No, I’ve been playing the SG through a Super-Reverb for ages. I’ve been trying to come up with a version of the Super-Reverb that’s more powerful, but right now it’s still an old vintage blackface amp with tubes and my SG, and that’s home.
How do you reflect on the relationship you and the SG have developed over the years?
I feel comfortable playing one guitar most of the time. I’ve tried to go through phases of playing different guitars, but I want the guitar to be second nature to me. For me, the SG is the first guitar that felt absolutely comfortable and I’ve been playing it so long now it’s not even a thought. There have been times in the last handful of years that sometimes I want to hear a different sound, so I like breaking out an old Firebird. There’s no other sound like that. But I still feel more comfortable with the SG than any other guitar.
When I have my SG, I can play what I want and never have to think about it… unless I break a string or something.