Featured Music: Wednesday, January 23, 2003

Guitar virtuoso who spent time in the Allman Brothers is in high gear on his own.


Derek Trucks is one of three guitarists I’ve ever seen who could make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. (The other two: Jeff Beck circa Wired and Frank Zappa in the late 1970s.) Back in 1999, after just turning 20, Trucks was playing a gig as a member of the Allman Brothers Band at what was then Starplex in Dallas. I’d heard the buzz about this incredible new kid guitarist they had, but I was kinda skeptical. After all, that was the time when it seemed like every week brought a new under-age blues guitarist (particularly Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang), so many that a musician friend quipped that “guitarists don’t call their guitars Lucille like B.B. King did anymore — now they call them Jon Benet.”

The Allmans hit the stage, and, less than 10 seconds into Trucks’ first solo, the entire crowd was awestruck. Not only was his playing imaginatively fiery, he seemed to have an original concept — rare in a player of any age, let alone in one who was not yet old enough to buy beer. In addition to producing muscular, singing blues licks reminiscent of founding Allman Brother Duane’s (RIP), Trucks was using the slide to play jazzy modal lines and incredibly fluid, Indian-sounding microtones. You had to feel sorry for poor old Dickie Betts, who had to solo after Duane from 1969 to ’71 and then had to follow this explosive youngster. Trucks might have had an inside track on the Allmans gig — the drummer in the group Trucks was leading at the time was an original Allman band member — but he had definitely earned the right to be onstage that day.

Trucks is leading his own band in groovy directions. With his new c.d., Joyful Noise, he’s taken his unusual blend of blues, rock, jazz, R&B, and world music influences and crafted an interesting and varied record filled with sounds to appeal to more than just the guitar freaks. Already an experienced road dog at 23, Trucks gives the impression that he’s just now hitting his stride.

The guitarist was humble when speaking from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., about his variegated musical approach. “I was just lucky to spend time around some broad-minded musicians like Col. Bruce Hampton and Jimmy Herring,” he said. Trucks has graced stages and studios with a host of bands — Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit, Herring’s Jazz Is Dead, Gov’t Mule, Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker — in addition to his own group and the Allman Brothers. Earlier this month, he was spending some time with his wife, singer-songwriter Susan Tedeschi, and their infant son Charlie, before heading to a cabin in northern Georgia for some pre-tour writing and rehearsal with his bandmates (bassist Todd Smalley, drummer Yonrico Scott, and keyboardist Kofi Burbridge).

Trucks’ first two c.d.’s, 1997’s The Derek Trucks Band and 1998’s Out of the Madness, were both produced by his friend and mentor John Snyder, who’s put together loads of interesting jazz and blues sessions for Telarc, Verve, and his own Artists House label. “John’s really responsible for this band staying together,” said Trucks. “He heard and understood what we were trying to do at an early stage.” So strong was Snyder’s belief in the band that he financed the sessions for their first album out of his own pocket. Both discs found Trucks paying mad props to his inspirations and influences — jazz heavyweights like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter on the eponymous debut, and the whole post-Allman, southern blues-rock tradition on Madness.

A third Snyder-produced album was put on hold when House of Blues, the label slated to release the disc, went bankrupt, forcing the band to spend the next three years on the road without being able to record or release any material. An executive from Columbia Records heard the “lost” album, though, and decided to sign the band. Trucks says that the album — which is all instrumental, except for one track featuring a Gregg Allman vocal — will finally be released in May.

For Joyful Noise, Trucks said, “We wanted to avoid getting pigeonholed as a blues-rock band, so we intentionally threw a lot of curveballs.” Those curveballs include guest appearances by a stellar cast of guest vocalists. Album engineer S. Husky Hoskulds had just worked on Don’t Give Up On Me, the latest release from ’60s soul man Solomon Burke, and suggested bringing Burke in to sing on a Kofi Burbridge composition, “Like Anyone Else.” Burke wound up putting down a vocal on a cover of “Home In Your Heart,” which he had originally recorded in 1963. “Solomon has such a great presence,” said Trucks. “He was a very positive influence on these sessions.”

The band had been performing “Maki Madni,” a Sufi chant by the late Qawwali master singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for some time before recording it. The band wanted to get the composer’s nephew Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to sing on the track, but this proved difficult in the aftermath of Sept. 11. “A lot of the wrong people were getting the finger pointed at them,” said Trucks. “Indian and Pakistani musicians were having to cancel [American] tours. Air travel was tough.” In the end, Trucks and company shipped the completed instrumental version to Rahat’s home in Karachi, Pakistan, where the singer recorded his vocal.

Additionally, Panamanian political firebrand and Hollywood star Ruben Blades contributed lyrics, vocals, and percussion to the band composition “Kam-ma-lay,” while Trucks’ wife Tedeschi did her first recording since giving birth, singing on the Joe Tex chestnut “Baby, You’re Right.”

Joyful Noise is clearly more of a band effort than its guitar-centric predecessors. “This band is pretty democratic musically,” said Trucks. “I wanted people to take as much notice of Kofi’s flute and keyboards as they do of my guitar.” Burbridge also made significant songwriting contributions to the disc. “I’m working on playing more lyrically,” Trucks added, “and I used the record as a medium to hone that skill, trying to win people over with nuance and tone rather than flash and technique. Live, you can do more — if you play too simply and melodically, there’s a chance you’ll go over or under their heads.”

The band Trucks brings to Cowtown will include a full-time vocalist, Mike Mattison, who’s not on the new c.d. Another Snyder protégé, Mattison had been performing as part of the Minneapolis duo Scrapomatic. “Mike’s been with us for nine months now,” said Trucks, “and he feels more a part of the band every day.”

Looking to the future, Trucks is optimistic. “The band is tight,” he said, “and we’re all comfortable with each other. This is the first time we’re going to have six months to a year to think about and record our next album. Now that we have a voice in the band to write for, we want to try to say something about all the things that are happening in the world... . It’s wide open.”

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