Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi had a rare insight into David Bowie’s final year of life because their bass player, Tim Lefebvre, played on Bowie’s farewell album, “Blackstar.”
“Bowie was familiar with my playing and Susan’s, and we were sending well wishes back and forth,” Trucks says. “Tim knew he was doing not so well. We recorded (Bowie’s) ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ while making our new album, and it’s going to be on the deluxe edition. Right toward the end we made a personal connection, but Bowie’s career is inspiring because of the way he kept changing things up. Bowie put a new band together for his new album, and he always wanted to surround himself with people to push the envelope. That’s the best way to avoid complacency, especially in yourself — surround yourself with ‘X men’ and see how far you can push it in as many directions as possible.”
A similar desire to challenge themselves caused Trucks and Tedeschi to put their flourishing solo careers on hold in 2010 to join forces in what became known as the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Trucks, a slide-guitar virtuoso who juggled gigs in the Allman Brothers and with Eric Clapton alongside his own projects, and Tedeschi, an acclaimed blues singer and guitarist with her own band, were married in 2001 and have two children. They decided to merge bands after nearly two decades of working separately despite the economic uncertainty of supporting a 12-piece ensemble on the road.
“It kept growing until we filled up the bus,” Trucks says.
“Two buses, actually,” Tedeschi adds. “You’ve got 12 bunks per bus, and you need at least one ‘junk bunk’ per bus, so we’ve got 22 people total: band, crew, two drivers.”
Trucks says the financial risk was worth it to the couple for one key reason. “It was a grind at first and we could have found easier ways to do it, but part of doing this was to impose a challenge on ourselves musically and personally.”
It’s turned into a major success, with the band selling out theaters around the country and launching yet another tour behind its latest album, “Let Me Get By” (Fantasy). It blends a greater emphasis on songcraft with the band’s wide-open influences, everything from Memphis soul and New Orleans jazz to raga rock and blues.
The range of music has caused the artists to lose some fans who preferred the individual style of one over the other, but as Trucks says, paraphrasing Sun Ra, “If you’re not (ticking) people off, you’re not trying very hard.”
Tedeschi and Trucks are nothing if not avid musical students, and they draw inspiration from artists like Bowie who never made the same album twice during his prime while refusing to be pinned down.
Stravinksy’s “The Rite of Spring” “caused riots when it was first performed, and a year later he was hero in the streets,” Tedeschi says.
“Ornette (Coleman) was that way too when people first heard him,” Trucks adds. “(Jazz drummer) Max Roach punched him he was so mad, but five years later he was putting bands together that sounded like Ornette.”
With a wide array of musical voices in their band, Tedeschi and Trucks have wide latitude to experiment, working with different configurations in almost any genre. It’s the most satisfying byproduct of keeping the band afloat through some lean years.
“You need to do at least 100, 150 shows a year to get really good,” Tedeschi says, and Trucks finishes the thought: “The more life stories you have together, the more you have to say on stage.”
That work ethic is underlined by the way the two band leaders approach their instruments. Tedeschi studied gospel singing while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston during the ‘90s and then gravitated to the blues, evolving into a first-rate guitarist. Trucks was a guitar prodigy who became a full-time member of the Allman Brothers in 1999 when he turned 20.
“The people I liked all told a story playing guitar,” Tedeschi says. “There are a lot of flashy guys out there I didn’t like. Whereas someone like B.B. King could play one note and make people feel it — that’s way deeper. I really focused on rhythm guitar playing at first because it was important to know the song and chords first before taking a solo. A lot of people get up and jam, but they don’t know the song. It’s hard to say anything, emote anything, with that approach. When I heard Derek, everything he plays is a melody, you can sing it back.”
Trucks says that mutual respect cemented the relationship with his future wife after they met at an Allman Brothers show in 1999 when Tedeschi was the opening act. “Me and Susan connected on that early on, the idea of music, not showmanship, and telling a story that was melody based. Someone like (late Allman Brothers founder) Duane Allman would take you to the edge of a cliff and jump off, but there’d always be a story. That approach has been corrupted by people who only go back as far as those (‘60s and ‘70s guitar heroes). The beauty behind someone like Duane was that he was listening to people like Elmore James, then back to Son House or Bukka White, where the slide guitar was emulating the female voice, the call and response. The guitar becomes another voice, as it was meant to be all along.”
©2016 Chicago Tribune
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