Derek Trucks Band: Grindin' Toward Freedom

By: Dennis Cook

The Derek Trucks Band
These days The Derek Trucks Band is getting known for what they do that's unique to them, and not just because of their bandleader's associations with the Allman Brothers or Eric Clapton.

"It definitely feels like there's a little shift going on," says Derek Trucks. "For the last few years, with the Clapton tour and everything else, I think our music is finally lining up, and this record is where it's all starting to fall into place. It's a work in progress [laughs]. You just keep grindin' away."

"There's no better way to learn than trial by fire, surrounded by people who've been doing it their entire lives and are really great at what they do. I kind of come from the mentality that there's a certain chemistry you can only get from serving time together, being in the trenches together," Trucks continues. "My dad's a roofer and seeing him get up and just bust ass everyday, I realized, 'I'm playing music.' Even as hard as it gets it's not being on a roof in 100-degree weather [laughs]. When I first went on the road, we had a day off in Macon, Georgia, and my dad got a roofing job. So, me and Todd [Smallie], my bassist, were tearing off roof between gigs, and I thought, 'This sucks! I'm gonna start practicing' [laughs]."

That Protestant work ethic – actually building calluses playing in front of whatever audience will have them – lies at the core of The Derek Trucks Band, a gathering of player's players, serious motherfuckin' musicians that wade into any waters with a sense of play and confidence that most often carries them through even the hairiest rapids. Trucks (guitar, sarod, bass, drums), Smallie (bass), Yonrico Scott (drums), Kofi Burbridge (keys), Count M'butu (percussion) and Mike Mattison (lead vocals) are collectively one of the finest ensembles in any genre today. Their versatility – leaping from Indian ragas to North Country blues to modal jazz to Middle Eastern spirituals – and steely-eyed intensity make for a never-less-than impressive experience, on record or especially live.

Derek Trucks by Michael Saba
However, Already Free (released January 13 on Victor Records) goes a long way to bridge the gap between the studio and the stage. From the cloudy, contemplative cover shot into the blues massaged innards, their latest album focuses on their unique traits applied to their most readily accessible songs yet. Gone is some of the exoticism that marked Joyful Noise, replaced by something that sounds surprisingly like a band finding their own identity separate from their ancestors.

"I really felt with this record that it's all the diverse influences distilled down after years of playing. All those influences are still there but it's more subtle, more refined. It's not as obvious as the other records where we're playing a Qawwali tune then a funk tune. On this record it's been stewing awhile and it's turned into a real cohesive band sound. To me, Songlines [2006] was the jumping off point where we started to realize we were getting to something here. Working with Jay Joyce, the producer on that record, really opened up my head and unlocked the possibilities of the studio. It unlocked the doors of all those great Hendrix records, Beatles records, Stevie Wonder records. They just made more sense to me, the process made more sense," says Trucks, who carried that inspiration into producing Already Free himself at his new home studio. "I do think this album is more inviting to first-time listeners. We play live so much and explore and stretch tunes as far as you can stretch 'em. The studio is a different trip. You're building sound, creating a different world, a different space, and I really feel like in our realm, in the bands that run in our realm [i.e. the jam/hard touring scene], there's very few really great records made. There's a lot of great music made, and great bands and performers. But, I feel like that thing that was going on in the late '60s, early '70s on up till the late '70s has been kind of lost. You think of Eat A Peach, where you had a band like the Allman Brothers that live was unbeatable yet it's such a beautiful record. I feel like that thing has to come back around. When I listen to the version of 'Blue Sky' on Eat A Peach I realize it could never have that feel live. It's some of the most beautiful playing Duane ever caught on tape and it happens to be in the studio."

"Now that we have a home studio I want to explore all this more. The live show isn't going to change but having that other outlet and really thinking about making records and writing tunes is really something I want to explore," continues Trucks, who's already captured some of that '70s golden age warmth on Already Free, which extends a friendly sonic hand from the roaring cover of Dylan's "Down In The Flood" that opens the set on through the philosophical gospel-moderne of the closing title track. "I think this energy and potential is all there, people just need to focus in on it again. With digital music, CDs and iPods, I think high-fidelity has gone the way of the buffalo [laughs]. But, I think it just takes a few people to delve back into it though."

Derek Trucks
"The whole process of doing this record was the first real break I'd had in 15 years. This month and a half with no gig was really the first time I could reflect and be introverted at all. When you're on the road you're grindin' and movin' so quick and meeting people, it's almost self-preservation mode. It's not always too healthy to be too vulnerable or introspective. The process of making this record made me realize that as a person, bandleader and musician you're always kind of right where you need to be," says Trucks. "It's a double-edged sword, you know? A lot of what makes your music better and deeper and greater is going through really difficult things, just dealing with life. The scars you add along the way are sometimes the real story. And sometimes what you need to do to play great music opens you up to all kinds of things. It's a constant balancing act, but once you can embrace it and be sensible about it then you can ride the lion pretty well."

"Having kids puts things in perspective really quickly [laughs]. It gives you a whole new respect for your spouse, too. Me and my wife [Susan Tedeschi] both tour and have been on the road a good portion of our lives. When she got pregnant I was thinking, 'How are we going to adjust to having kids?' As soon she gave birth she changed from one person into Super Mom [laughs]. It's amazing watching that natural, instinctive process happen. Then you go through it yourself, you change as a person. Responsibility takes on new meaning. It took me a long time but I think this last six months was when I really made the full turn with my wife being on the road and me being Mr. Mom and doing all those things that really made me grow up and mature. It's great for you and it's important."

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