Concerning The Spiritual in The Tedeschi Trucks Band
Wassily Kandinsky, the great abstract painter, offered music as “the best teacher” for aspiring artists in his own book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. “With few exceptions,” he wrote, “music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.” “Soul” is a term loaded with musical meaning. More than merely a style for singers like Al Green and Alicia Keys to explore, it has become an adjective for those in a variety of genres who manage to sing or play with genuine feeling, making their own passion, whether it is ecstasy or agony, communicable and accessible to the audience.
More than any other descriptor, “soul” also captures the essence of the experience of The Tedeschi Trucks Band. With Susan Tedeschi, one of America’s great vocalists, at the microphone, her husband – a guitar god in every sense of the term – Derek Trucks on lead, and a twelve-piece band, complete with horns, backup singers, and two drummers of profound dynamism, The Tedeschi Trucks Band could settle for simple excellence. An exhibition of their boundless talent and craftsmanship would place them above nearly every other band currently making music, but their ambition reaches toward the triumphant of the spiritual – that which Kandinsky claimed is at the top of the artistic pyramid.
The high aspiration and sharp execution of The Tedeschi Trucks Band gives their art a subtly subversive quality in an era when most mainstream music is the product more of the computer than the spirit, and more of technical programming than human playing.
Without drama or spectacle, the band took the stage of The Chicago Theatre on January 27 for the final performance in a three night run. Susan Tedeschi, whose voice resounds with thunderous power, greeted the capacity crowd with a soft tone and sweet words. In the next moment, Trucks began playing the riff of their own soulful rock ‘n’ roll song, “Don’t Let Me Slide.”
Trucks’ musical education developed under the tutelage of Warren Haynes, perhaps the greatest living practitioner of rock music alive, while he spent 15 years in The Allman Brothers Band. The riffs that Trucks plays separate him from the Allman Brothers, and typically signal a song of a harder and heavier variety. The music never quite goes there, offering the surprise of excitement before landing in the blues, soul, or jazz. The riffs are an invitation to the navigation of a multi-genre exploration, held together by Tedeschi’s soaring and deft vocal delivery.
Taking their inspiration from the big presentation of The Allman Brothers, Sly and The Family Stone, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band perform with immense power and grandiosity without ever slipping into Las Vegas excess. One of the most stunning compliments the band deserves – almost unfathomable because of the skill that the players, most especially the seemingly superhuman Trucks, bring to the stage – is that they are innovative, but never flashy. At no point during the show did it feel as if any of the twelve musicians were simply trying to impress the audience. Rather, they coalesced to serve the songs – all of which create an experience of musical possession, both for themselves and those in their company.
The demeanor of Trucks might serve as the perfect metaphor for the musical approach of the entire band. During the middle of the second song, a cover of The Derek and Dominoes’ classic, “Any Day,” Trucks played a wild, but controlled solo of great fire and fury, without sacrificing emotion, much to the audience’s audible exhilaration. Throughout the solo, Trucks stood stationary, not making any facial expressions, seemingly united with his instrument, as if the guitar was an appendage.
Trucks maintains a disposition so calm, even at the heights of artistic expression and musical mastery, that it is decidedly Zen. The Buddhists believe that enlightenment comes through meditation. One cannot help but wonder if instead of a mantra, Trucks has his guitar, and when he plays, he is merely allowing everyone to witness his own spiritual ritual.
The Chicago crowd reacted loudly to all the guitar solos, horn riffs, and vocal excellence, and there is no way to not classify The Tedeschi Trucks Band, even with its blues, classic R&B, and jazz influences, as rock ‘n’ roll, but their music is more contemplative than anything else. In a reversal of Kandinsky’s advice, it is like an abstract painting. It is also like a poem. The best of poetry offers an artistic and aesthetic experience in which the reader can get lost in a feeling, and then follow that feeling to a place of possible discovery. Even in its most rollicking moments, The Tedeschi Trucks Band show had a poetic sense of quiet provocation, issuing an impetus to navigate one’s own internal geography – joy, love, fear, sadness, exuberance.
“Midnight in Harlem,” something of a signature song from the band’s first record, like a soft rain dropped notes of beauty and melancholy on the audience. Trucks played with a sad spirit, while Tedeschi sang of city struggle. It was one of several highlights of the first set, which reached climaxes with surprising and sophisticated teases of Miles Davis’ “On the Corner,” and “Soul Sacrifice” by Santana. In addition to the cover of Derek and the Dominoes, they also gave the eager crowd a taste of the Allman Brothers classic, “Blue Sky.”
The covers, particularly “Any Day,” often competed with the originals, or even surpassed them, but the band’s own compositions provided the true profundity of the performance. Bands that perform at an optimal level, such as TTB or Gov’t Mule, do not receive the attention that they deserve for their inventive songwriting. The lyrics, melodies, and dynamics of Tedeschi Trucks songs are as evocative as they are diverse.
“Made Up Mind,” the title track to their second record, begins with a driving rock riff, only to transform into an uptempo soul song with shades of Stax. “Right on Time” is a mid-tempo love song with gospel undertones, while a new song, not yet released, “Shame” stretched into fifteen minutes, traversing the boundaries of rock, jazz, and Americana. Trucks’ own blazing guitar parts found complement in respective organ and flute solos.
A show stopping cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity The Fool,” featured Tedeschi screaming and wailing a plea for love as if the force of her voice could stop every crime, political and interpersonal, in progress. A set closing, “The Storm,” morphed seamlessly into “Whipping Post,” the Allman Brothers hit, and despite the power of the performance, the exercise of rock ‘n’ roll abandon came across as a tearful act of grief – the work of mourning for the recently deceased, Gregg Allman.
Tedeschi Trucks gave an exhibition in music made, not merely played, without predictable formula or familiar pattern. The songs have sophisticated structure, as these are not stream of consciousness jams, but the jam portion of every song is sufficiently improvisational that one feels lost in the surrender of the band to momentary inspiration. It is poetry in music; painting in sound.
David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).