Derek Trucks Band: Grindin’ Toward Freedom

By Team JamBase Jan 29, 2009 6:50 pm PST

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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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.

Derek Trucks


This newfound understanding of family and fatherhood has emerged in the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Soul Stew Revival, which he describes as “a living breathing entity. As the family changes so does the Revival. I like that about it.” Spoken like a man with multiple outlets for his creativity as part of the Allman Brothers Band or touring with Clapton.

Tedeschi & Trucks by Michael Saba
“It’s so great to have those different outlets. It’s really great for your playing to take on different roles,” says Trucks. “Sometimes being restrained will help you grow, too, like being a rhythm player in a band, leading that way, is a lot harder to do than the other stuff. To be subtle and lead you have to be kind of a magician [laughs]. [In the Allmans] this sometimes happens by taking control sonically, sometimes it’s just the energy and presence you bring to it, sometimes it’s backroom stuff. Since Dickey’s been gone it’s been very much a musical democracy; it’s a different trip. When Warren [Haynes] or Gregg [Allman] are out front singing, they’re physically leading the band that way, but if Oteil [Burbridge] wants to take over any tune he can do it. People might not notice it out front but he’s running the ship. Sometimes I dig in and do it and just move it. You can feel that dynamic shifting throughout a show.”

Returning to the new Trucks Band album and their choice of “Down In The Flood” to kick things off, Trucks comments, “Like so many things in life, it’s about first impressions. A live show is the same way, where you want the first song to kind of state your case. That’s what that Dylan song does on this record. It’s amazing there’s still gems in his catalog that are pretty unheard of.” Mike Mattison’s hellhound addled roar on this cut sets the bar for his performance throughout Already Free, where the singer hits some serious new studio peaks. “He’s really settled into singing in this band and this sound. I was really happy and proud of Mike on this album. On ‘Down In The Flood,’ we started it with just a shaker track and I went back and played the whole thing on guitar and Mike sang it live in the control room. 95-percent of that vocal track was done live. He really stepped it up, both vocally and writing-wise, on this album.”

The live feel of these sessions is often sensed first in the pleasantly raw vocals but quickly permeates the rest of the layers. It’s a huge difference from the Pro-Tooled, Auto-Tuned slickness prevalent today. “That does seem to be a virus,” chuckles Trucks. “You can hear when something’s been messed with too much. I’m all for using the studio and a little studio trickery – it has its place – but I like to know a singer can actually sing like they do on a record. I want them to at least come close live.”

Trucks has a great ear for singers in general, which may have something to do with the distinctly human, vocal qualities of his slide guitar style. Inside his warbled notes lays cries and sighs, breath and heartbeat, sweat and tears.

Mike Mattison & Derek Trucks
“I’ve dug in at times and avoided all guitar players and just listened to vocalists or horn players. I think the most direct connection to people is usually the human voice, and with a slide you can emulate that and maybe get to the next best thing,” observes Trucks, who’s also begun playing the sarod, which possesses also a long glissando voice. “The sarod and the electric slide are very similar that way. It’s very emotive. For me, the introduction [to Indian musicians like VM Bhatt] came from Jeff Sipe, a great drummer. Whenever I was in Atlanta I’d stop by his house and he’d turn me onto some amazing, amazing music. He played me this footage of Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain together and that was it! I was forever changed.”

This lightning-striking-earth dynamic acknowledges the way music can enter into our lives with a suddenness that shakes us to the core. Some of us, Trucks very much included, never get over the happy surprise of music from any era or any genre that resonates something true or joyous or profound or just plain strange hitting our ears, coming into our lives on vibrational air – a physical sensation that stirs the mind and soul and, if we let it, alters us forever more.

“It happens all the time, like a great Astor Piazzolla record. It just changes the possibilities and boundaries for you. There’s a great one called Tango: Zero Hour that’s just a beautiful record,” says Trucks. “It’s all just different threads. You know if something’s inspired or if something’s just running through the motions. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, if somebody’s speaking to you then that’s that. If you’re gonna learn to how to play it then you’re going to have to dig in and learn the form and where it’s coming from. You can’t just paw at it all the time. But, the boundaries really don’t matter as far as listening goes.”

“If they’re a real artist, everybody moves around and branches out,” says Trucks. “Willie Nelson is good example. He’ll do a reggae album then an album of standards then a folk record then an album of Hank Sr. tunes. He’s one of those guys where it doesn’t matter to him; if he wants to do something he’ll do it.”

One’s sound bite often settles in fast in a culture obsessed with placing things in neat, easily sellable stacks. This is especially true for someone like Trucks who began stepping on stages while still a child to wow onlookers with his preternatural slide guitar prowess. This monomaniacal focus on his slide work is a disservice to one of the most flexible, innovative and just plain tasty guitarists today.

The Derek Trucks Band
“It just comes with the territory. I’ve been doing it long enough to know it’s a long road and not worth getting worked up over things. It doesn’t bother me at all,” says Trucks. “When I first started out all that was mentioned was my age, the whole ‘child prodigy’ thing, and the connection to the Allman Brothers, then it was being a slide player or a blues player. If anything, you just keep plugging away and write your own story about the music you play. In the long run, hopefully it’s a more complete picture. If you continually grind away and hone in on what you do then you can bend the story the way you want it to go. Everybody wants to relate it to something they know, but when you’re writing about or talking about music it’s impossible to really translate what you’re trying to get across. You really have to experience it.”

Which brings us to the title of the Derek Trucks Band latest effort, Already Free, one of those fabulous koan-like two word pairings, where multiple interpretations are possible despite the brevity. So, what does the title mean to Trucks and his band?

“That title came from the song we wrote of the same name but it encompasses a lot of things – the whole process of building our own studio and having complete control over the music, doing it ourselves, birthing an idea as a band and realizing you’re always grinding away trying to make something happen. We’re already unbelievably fortunate to get to play the music we want to play, and we’re lucky enough to have a core audience that keeps gas in the bus and covers everyone’s rent and keeps our families fed,” offers Trucks. “And on a more personal level [with the title], sometimes what you’re looking for, what you think you’re missing, is right in front of your face. You just have to stop and take a deep breath and you’re home.”

The Derek Trucks Band – “Joyful Noise”

The Derek Trucks Band is on tour now; dates available here.

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