I walked into the Saenger Theater on Tuesday to see Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB) with a pre-conceived notion. I’m a guitar guy, and I view Derek Trucks as the Eric Clapton of my generation. I was there to see him, and despite how much I like Susan Tedeschi’s unmistakable soulful crooning, the slide virtuoso who played on stage with the Allman Brothers at age 12 was going to get most of my attention.
But Susan Tedeschi wouldn’t allow us to ignore her. By the second song ‘Anyhow’, it was clear that her voice carries the same power as his guitar, with the same unique range and forcefulness. She has the ability to dial up and dial down the way few singers do, which lends itself particularly well to what TTB is today: an amazing collection of musicians that are on the precipice of greatness. This is a band we will be talking about for a very long time.
That’s the really good news.
On the other hand, reaching the mountaintop of live music-dom may not be easy, and I suspect there may need to be some adjustments along the way (as all great lasting bands ultimately undergo). Put simply, there are too many people on stage, too many mouths to feed (musically). Over time, we will see TTB trend back to musical basics, whether it’s for the next album or five albums from now. Guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, vocals. The rest is support.
It’s not that the ensemble is struggling. At all. TTB is full of talented supporting musicians. On Tuesday night, the horn section included a sax, a trumpet, and a trombone. There were 3 talented back-up vocalists. Two drummers. The bass could be a main attraction on any other stage. The 12 piece all came together brilliantly for a cover of the timeless The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’. But there were other moments when the spotlight shone for too long on someone not named Derek or Susan, specifically three ill-timed sax solos and an odd and underwhelming drum solo.
TTB today is the equivalent of an NFL football team with 8 All-Pro wide receivers. The band is amazingly equitable when it comes to passing the stage around, but you just can’t spread the ball around enough. This is a well-rehearsed group of technically near-perfect musicians. There wasn’t a noticeable missed note, last night or ever. For my money though, give the ball to the 2 future Hall of Famers, over and over again. And add some improvisation to the show, which only really peeked out when Derek and the trombone battled to a draw during the second encore, a cover of Joe Cocker’s ‘Space Captain’.
The Saenger did the group justice, providing a perfect acoustic setting even if it was populated with a geriatric and lackluster crowd. Ultimately, it was Susan who would not be denied, forcing the 50-somethings to stand and shout even if they wanted to hit the rack early on a Tuesday night.
She did it with more than just her amazing voice. Susan Tedeschi is a world-class blues guitarist in her own right, which was most evident during Bobby Bland’s ‘I Pity the Fool’. The peak of the show’s energy came when Susan channeled Muddy Waters for the song while throwing the guitar behind her head. Quite frankly, Mr. Waters himself would have been in her shadow at that moment.
For Derek Trucks’ part, he did not disappoint. The guitar prodigy is getting better and stronger every time he picks up the axe. The 16th Greatest Guitarist of All-time (as rated by Rolling Stone magazine in 2015) has climbed the list since then, and he is still climbing. I love the slide guitar, but what Derek is doing can’t be compared with other slide greats. He is in a world of his own, with the capacity to invent music that has never been heard before, with ease and with poise. There is no limit to his range, and he is as brilliant supporting his wife’s Irma Thomas-like vocal power as he is taking over the stage, and the Saenger, and all of Rampart Street in some instances.
So where does TTB go in the future? For starters, everyone on stage is having fun, especially Derek and Susan. The couple supports each other on stage like no musical duet I’ve ever witnessed. And the sky REALLY is the limit for TTB. There’s still a lot of experimentation as the band cycles through their own music and a long list of uniquely re-positioned covers.
Over time, I would expect to see future albums pick up the pace a bit and hone in on Derek and Susan more. They are both generational talents on their own, and they have already accomplished much as a group. Attaining the next level is less about supporting each other’s talents and more about joining those talents to create something new. And to do that, the rest of the group may need to accept a more obvious supporting role.
Luckily, there’s no rush. Making a comparison to another favorite large ensemble Little Feat, TTB has as many original hits with a deeper overall catalog of A- songs. After you get past the Feat’s top 6 or 7, the rest is a mess. Not so with TTB, the entire original music assortment is good, and the band has proved commercial appeal. And what The Feat lacked, Tedeschi Trucks Band has in spades: time.