With regard to the slide guitar, Duane Allman was such a commanding figure that any discussion of the instrument always comes back to him. Indeed, it’s rare to find an article about slide guitar that doesn’t mention Duane Allman. For decades it seemed like his unrivaled supremacy on the slide guitar would never be questioned. Then came Derek Trucks.
In the case of Derek Trucks, there are valid reasons to mention Duane Allman. First there are family ties. Derek’s uncle, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band. Derek’s parents named him in honor of the great LP “Layla” which resulted from the legendary recording sessions in Miami, Florida involving Eric Clapton and Duane Allman under the name of “Derek and the Dominoes.” The comparisons naturally increased when Derek Trucks took over Duane Allman’s slide duties when he joined the Allman Brothers Band. Finally, the buzz reached the world in 2006/07 when Derek recreated the original magic of the Derek and the Dominoes legacy by performing much of that recording on stage with Eric Clapton.
Despite all this, Derek is finally emerging from behind the giant shadow cast by Duane Allman and is being recognized as an extremely gifted player who has his own sound, style and artistic vision.
When Derek Trucks looked like this, he sounded like this. By the age of eleven he was already performing professionally. Wade Tatangelo of the McClatchy Newspapers chain interviewed Derek in January of 2007:
Most twentysomething guitarists would be petrified at the thought of sharing a stage with Clapton. But Trucks has been blowing audiences away for more than a decade. His first brush with a genuine rock legend occurred in Clearwater, Fla., in 1992. Trucks, 12, was the opening act for Bob Dylan.
“I recall leaving the show and I ran into Dylan,” Trucks remembered. “I was on my way out and he asked me if I wanted to stick around and sit in with him.
“I was only 12, but I knew how much weight he carried,” Trucks continued. “I remember my dad being completely freaked out. He was much more nervous than me.”
This reporter attended the same show. Dylan was performing “Highway 61 Revisited” when he turned his back on the audience and motioned to Trucks, who was standing with his guitar in the wings. The child with the long blond hair stepped on stage and laid down some nasty slide guitar licks that garnered a smile from Dylan.
“That night sticks out as a highlight,” Trucks said. “Definitely.”
A couple of years later he appeared on Brazilian television, mixing blues numbers in with several Coltrane standards.Throughout his teenage years Derek sat in with the Allman Brothers Band and shortly before his 20th birthday he was asked to join the band. I first heard and saw Derek when I purchased the Allman Brothers Band Beacon Concert DVD released in 2003. Many ABB fans, myself included, feel that Derek has given the band a lot of the magic they had during the early days when Duane Allman was still alive.
After nearly 15 years on the road, Derek is now thrilling audiences worldwide as you can see in this clip from the 2006/2007 Eric Clapton World Tour.
If you’ve got some time and good speakers or headphones, listen to these live recordings of the Derek Trucks Band.
Here is a review of the 2006 release “Songlines.”
Many members of the The Derek Trucks Band’s intensely loyal fan base took umbrage with elements of this review – with a couple of exceptions I consider it fair and accurate. The salient point that Ben Ratliff of the NYT is making: This is not a band of equals – Derek Trucks is a phenomenal talent surrounded by capable professionals, and it is axiomatic that the overall quality of the band is not equal to the talent of its leader.
If you watch the video of the Brazilian television concert above, you’ll notice that his current bass player (Todd) and drummer (Rico) were already with him then. A musical partnership Derek entered into when he was 14 has survived 14 years, that’s actually rather remarkable. Todd and Rico’s musical proficiency provide a very solid musical foundation for Derek. In some respects this offsets the variations in innate musical gifts. They literally have played together thousands of times and this insures a tight sound, and they possess an onstage radar about where Derek wants to take the music. Although, one might question if this level of repetition and routine is more important than the creative spark that comes from interacting with different players.
Contrary to the NYT review, I feel that on flute Kofi holds his own quite well on stage with Derek – there’s nothing wrong with being “melodic, pretty and ordinary.” Moreover, I would replace “ordinary” with ” thoroughly competent.” In addition, Kofi is full of musical ideas, he has good compositional skills, and he is capable of providing keyboard accompaniment. However, as a keyboard soloist, IMHO, Kofi does not hold his own with Derek on stage. At times it seems as if he uses playfulness and audacity to bridge the skills gap vis-a-vis Derek. As a result, sometimes the band is not as tight as one might expect and during extended instrumental improvisation this does diminish the overall sound.
All this would be a more important question if, like Ronnie Earl, Derek fronted an instrumental band playing improvisational blues laced with jazz. Derek recently remarked:
“We’ve always wanted to be 70-30, 80-20 vocals to instrumentals, and it wasn’t until Mike came around with the right sound, the right mind-set, the right musical sensibilities, that we were able to head down that road. He’s been the missing piece we’ve been looking for a long time.”
Derek is a devotee of the jazz greats and in many ways he is inspired by their example, but for whatever reason he prefers to back a vocalist. Fans of the Derek Trucks Band accept this 80/20 approach and follow the band as a unified whole. If, however, one views Derek as one of those rare talents who comes along every few decades, there is a desire to see him plumb the depths of his creative potential – just as you wouldn’t have wanted to have John Coltrane backing Dinah Washington in an 80/20 approach. I’m sure the NYTimes reviewer falls into this group, as do I – but such decisions are ultimately up to the artist.
In terms of commercial appeal, the “Songlines” CD with its 70/30 approach was indeed successful and marked a turning point for the band. The bulk of the critics also consider it the best recording to date by the band. Yet I must be truthful and admit that it doesn’t get as much play around our house as earlier recordings – this is primarily because we prefer the 20/80 approach. But the band is tighter than ever, Derek’s playing is impeccable, the production is excellent, and there are some exceptional moments, such as Sahib Teri Bandi and This Sky. According to Derek:
“We play so much and we record our shows live [enough] that that side of the band is captured and documented,” Trucks explains. “When we go in the studio… we try to make albums, make records. The records that I come back to and listen to after years and years—whether it’s a great early Stevie Wonder record or some of those great Hendrix records—there’s just so much going on, just so many layers, that the more you listen to it, you find new things all the time.”
But this CD places a great deal of emphasis on Mike Mattison’s vocals. Mike is not a “leather-lunged soul shouter” or the voice of a “car commercial” as the review claims, but he is also not to singing, what Derek Trucks is to guitar playing. Here the review hits home for me: “With such a talent leading the band, one can experience a vertiginous drop in interest when Mr. Trucks finishes his solos.” Of course such things are subjective, and it would seem an overwhelming majority of Derek Trucks Band fans love Mike’s vocals, and Derek is unquestionably very happy with Mike’s contribution to the band.
Ironically, Derek Trucks is married to the gifted Grammy nominated Blues singer Susan Tedeschi, who, in my opinion, sings just about as well as Derek plays. But it is understandable that they have each wished to retain their own musical identity. Joint gigs were “special events.”
But this summer they have organized a joint tour to rave reviews. This allows them to be together with their children. If they ever decided to do this continuously, they could, without increasing the total number of musicians, add a horn section and second keyboardist. Judging from the reviews, it sure seems like they might consider joining forces:
“Although dubbed the “Soul Stew Revival,” the first show in this year’s Garden Concert Series was ably carried on the shoulders of a long blues tradition by the husband-and-wife team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Whether playing some of the all-time classics or their own compositions, the pair proved repeatedly why they are arguably two of the best, if not the best, young blues musicians in the world. Practically every song played during the two-hour show had its highlights, usually connected to either Tedeschi’s voice or Trucks’ guitar. “
It should also be said that Susan is a fine blues guitarist in her own right. She has an original style and on this tour she has brought along Ron Holloway (sax) from her band. She is a tremendously talented blues singer – she is to voice what Derek is to guitar. Listen to these live recordings from the Paramount Theatre and judge for yourself.
If you like jazz and are more interested in an instrumental CD, I recommend “Soul Serenade.” Although it was released in 2003 (because of legal problems), it was actually recorded in 1999 and early 2000 when Derek was only twenty.
Nonetheless, it is a sophisticated recording with a single vocal track – Gregg Allman covering Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears” (H. Glover).
“Joyful Noise”, released in late 2002, is another excellent recording. The title track, “Joyful Noise”, is a rip-roaring song done in a gospel style utilizing the vocal quality of Derek’s guitar and the church feel of the Hammond B3 played to great effect by Kofi.
Two of Kofi’s compositions are sung to perfection by the great Solomon Burke, Derek’s wife Susan Tedeschi does a guest shot, and there is an amazing vocal by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Derek Trucks has been playing more than 200 gigs a year for over a decade, and he is at his best live on stage. This captures him doing what he does best – playing live music. His guitar is an extension of his being. Without tricks or effects he creates a totally unique sound, and, IMHO, he is the most expressive guitarists alive today. As someone who had the chance to see Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Duane Allman up close and live, no one impressed me more than Derek Trucks. If you ever have a chance to see Derek Trucks live, don’t pass up the opportunity – you’ll never forget it.As the NYTimes review maintains, Derek Trucks can’t hide his talent. Just as Miles produced, “Kind of Blue” and Coltrane “Blue Train”, it seems inevitable that someday Derek’s inspired and expressive playing will result in a true masterpiece. It might, for example, be interesting to apply the rich layered sound recording approach of Hendrix and Stevie Wonder to a non vocal CD.
As a non-singing guitarist, Derek could consider the Santana model. Backing a vocalist and maintaining a commercially viable rock group that incorporates various musical influences, while retaining the freedom to do outside instrumental projects with other exceptionally gifted musicians, concentrating on more demanding, but less commercially viable music.
Tens years ago (1997) Derek produced a very ambitious CD. It contained two Coltrane songs, Miles Davis’ “So What”, and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” There was a single vocal track and basically Derek carried the load, pushing himself to the limits of his technical skills at that time. Despite the veteran producer John Snyder (Etta James, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ornette Coleman), the recording quality was not impressive. Derek lacked the polish and sophistication he has today, but this is a “must have” for serious Derek fans.
Perhaps it was an overreach – not yet up to the standards of a jazz audience, and much too demanding to be commercially viable. Did this experience burn Derek’s fingers and dissuade him from pursuing demanding instrumental music ? I don’t have an answer, but I hope that Derek will someday retrace his ambitious early steps and produce an instrumental work worthy of his tremendous musical gifts, incorporating all that he’s learned in the decade that’s passed.
UPDATE: See my subsequent interviews with Derek & Susan