For many of us who’ve followed the local music scene since the mid-1980s, the ongoing success of Derek Trucks has been a pleasure to watch unfold.
Initially earning a cult of notoriety as a child prodigy slide guitarist who just happened to be a blood relative of one of the legendary Allman Brothers Band, Derek’s visibility in the music industry (and among rock, blues and jam fans worldwide) increased twenty-fold when he was eventually tapped to officially join the Allmans – a move which he maintains took him greatly by surprise, despite his close proximity to the group’s organization.
Juggling the responsibilities which came along with playing in one of the world’s most famous rock bands of all time as well as leading his own critically-acclaimed blues and jazz-influenced rock group have honed his talents far more than inestimable years of woodshedding, but they’ve also colored his worldview.
The Derek Trucks of today is a centered, dedicated performer, quick to smile and laugh, openly thankful for the opportunities his gifts and hard work have brought him and his compatriots, and in possession of an almost Zen-like attitude toward crossing his fingers and wishing for the flashes of creativity that spark off serious musicians in close proximity to one another.
In the midst of raising a family with his wife Susan Tedeschi (a chart-topping blues guitarist and singer in her right), Derek has also found enough time over the past few years to cut a new record with his own band, sit in with a few world famous Indian folk musicians at last year’s Savannah Music Festival, and accept an invitation to join iconic guitarist Eric Clapton on his upcoming world tour.
I caught up with Derek by phone the morning after a scorching set with the Allman Brothers Band in New York City. A few short days after our conversation – in what is sadly proving to be an all-too frequent news bulletin of late – word came down the line that virtually every piece of his own band’s gear (much of it rare and vintage) had been stolen in Atlanta, Georgia.
The mood was still jovial at the time of our extended chat, however. What follows are selected excerpts.
Connect Savannah: I know you had a late night. I hope I didn’t wake you.
Derek Trucks: Man, my days start around 7:30 a.m. I’ve got two young kids! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Are things as busy for you right now as they usually are?
Derek Trucks: I’m up here for the Allman Brothers Band’s annual run of shows at the Beacon Theater. We’re doin’ 13 shows, and I just finished up a tour with my guys. We did the Conan show, and only had two days off in between that and the Beacon. My band did an East Coast run and a West Coast run this time around, and it really went well. Spirits were high all around. It helps when you have a record comin’ out that you feel really strongly about.
Connect Savannah: Tell me a bit about the brand-new album, Songlines.
Derek Trucks: This album was a change of pace for the band. We utilized the studio a lot more than we have in the past. We tried to actually make a record this time rather than just document what we do live inside a recording studio. Everyone’s mindset was different. It was like starting from scratch. Jay Joyce, who we used for the first time, was a great producer. He helped us to deconstruct the tunes, rethink them and then replay them. I was quite happy with the risks that we took, and I think most of them worked out for the best.
Connect Savannah: How did your band go about selecting a producer?
Derek Trucks: You read through the liner notes of the CDs of all the people you wind up playing with on the road, and a few names start to jump out at you. We listened to Jay’s reel, and he had a cool way of getting a current sound, but it was organic at the same time. Urgent – but not overly modern. That’s a nice combination, and it’s kind of how we view our band anyway. With a group like this, we’re trying to put a new spin on things that are classic. His mindset was a good fit with us. It was actually great timing that we met him. We were all ready to do something slightly different – including him. You know, I don’t think he’s recorded more tunes over four minutes long in his entire life! (laughs) You know us, we’ve got a lot of songs that are nine and ten minutes. The closest he’s come to what we do was recording newgrass guys.
Connect Savannah: How’s the CD being received so far?
Derek Trucks: Well, the initial response has been really strong in the first few weeks. We got great press in unexpected places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It exceeded our expectations, and actually sold a few records! That never happens with us right off the bat! (laughs) I actually knocked my wife off the top spot on the Blues charts. It only took me five or six years! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: At last year’s Savannah Music Fest you jammed on slide guitar and sarod with two of the finest young sarod players in India. What are your memories of that rather unexpected collaboration?
Derek Trucks: That was the first time and it was an eye-opening experience. I’ve been heavily into Indian music for a long time. I listen to it a lot, and had been out to Ali Akbar Khan’s music school on the West Coast and seen a few performances there. But to be out there on that stage was pretty amazing. I’d met the other guys about 20 hours before showtime and we went over some stuff in the hotel room. They were incredible players and great guys to hang with. Luckily, I had ingested that type of music enough that it clicked and I was able to get by. Hopefully I didn’t seem like a fish out of water the whole time. (laughs) That was definitely the most I’ve had to woodshed in a one day period in my life, but things like that are good for you.
A week or so before the show I got a CD of what they were doing, and there was one raga on there they told me to key in on. So I learned that melody, and I learned a couple more the night before that I could attempt to join in on. It was one of the great moments in time for me. Obviously, if I could go back and change things a little bit, I would. But I was pretty happy with the way it went down.
There was plenty of mutual respect on the stage in all directions, so it was relatively enjoyable and easy. I think me coming into it cold was really good in a way because it put a different slant on it. It felt spontaneous because it truly was! If I did it again I’d take a bit more time, but it was nice to get on stage a little blind. When you’re really wondering if you’ll make it all the way through to the end of the show, that’s when some magic can happen. I so enjoyed that aspect of it. I felt like a real rookie again. It’s good for a musician – to have a trial by fire in front of a packed house every once in a while.
Connect Savannah: Since then, have you done anything similar in public?
Derek Trucks: It was a one-off deal. I’ve kept in touch with those guys and would love to do something in the future, but aligning our schedules has been chaos! I’d love to do anything in that realm, really.
Connect Savannah:Your band plays all sorts of venues, from club shows to blues festivals and even jam-band type situations. Besides the Savannah Music Fest, are there any other gigs you’ve played, where there’s everything from opera to traditional African music on the bill, or is this an unusual booking for you?
Derek Trucks: You know, this is one of the most unique festivals in the whole country right now. There’s not a lot of opportunities out there for stuff like this. For the past two or three years we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from the traditional scenes that people associated us with. The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra worked up some of our tunes, which was awesome, and so we’ve been trying to run in that realm a little bit. We’ve been playing more jazz fests in America and overseas as well. The Savannah Music Fest has turned out to be one of the most unusual in the whole country.
There’s not many left that are solely ticket-driven anywhere in the U.S. anymore. This fest is driven on the quality of the music alone, instead of just selling tons of tickets no matter who’s on stage. You know, things like Bonnaroo are not purely musical adventures! (laughs) It’s refreshing to see someone get it together and make it happen. It reminds me of Bill Graham’s early mentality. He would just throw together an amazing mix of music and humans and hope for the best.
We were out at the Fillmore West a while back and they have posters for almost every show they’ve ever done out there. You’ll see concerts where they had Albert King, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and Miles Davis – all on the same bill! I’d like to see somebody try to go on after Albert King. (laughs) I guess Miles could. Hell, in a situation like that, half the fun is just working harder to try and get over to somebody else’s crowd.
Back then, in that particular time and place you could get away with things like that a lot more than you can now. That’s two-sided though. Sometimes you have to try to stand up and make it the right time and place. You have to step up and take a leadership role and explain to people what’s good about this stuff.
In Savannah, you can tell that a lot of people are buying tickets out of faith in the festival. They know by now that it’ll have class and so they show up for shows they know very little about – and more often than not, they’re better off for it. I can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of keeping a thing like that going, but I hope it goes forever.
Connect Savannah: Will you get to hang out long enough to catch some other shows, or is this a one-nighter for you guys and then back out on the road?
Derek Trucks: This year it’s in and out. Last year I was there for three days and could really check out some stuff. This year the timing is crazy. We only have a small amount of days on our tour, and then rehearsals for the Clapton thing starts in April. Right now it’s just a European tour, but it looks like I’m playing in his band for a year. I only met him once at a session we did late last year with JJ Cale. It was a really relaxed session. (laughs) Then I got a call out of the blue. He offered me the gig, and I just couldn’t pass it up. I went from having a year that was gonna slow down a bit to the craziest one yet, but all in a positive way.
It’ll be really chaotic, but all my projects feed off of each other. Hopefully having a band and playing as much as we do, having that road edge, will help me in the Clapton gig. It’ll spice it up. When I jump off my band into the Allman Brothers, it’s all sorts of fresh ideas and new surroundings.
On a personal level, playing with certain guys, you find a dynamic and you run with it. Then your playing gets awkward, but in a good way. I’m curious how playing with the Brothers and my own band will help me mesh with Clapton. I have no idea what songs we’ll be doing or what role I’ll fill in the band. I won’t know until I get there. It should be fun, and I guess we’ll just see how it goes.
Connect Savannah: What an opportunity, to get to work for an extended time alongside someone like Eric Clapton.
Derek Trucks: When you look back at his career, it’s amazing how he’s kept it all together. He’s on top of his game – completely clear minded and focused on what he’s doing. Every once in a while he’d play a solo in the studio and I’d say, oh yeah, he’s still got it. He never lost his edge. You can’t say that for many guys who’ve done it as long or had as much success. Either you don’t make it physically, or you can’t maintain that fire. Changing it up often has done it for Eric. He surrounds himself with guys who spark his creativity. I didn’t realize at first all the guys he’s played with over the years. It blows your mind! From Howlin’ Wolf to John Lennon! (laughs) And he made it out alive.
Connect Savannah: Which is more personally gratifying to you, playing with your own group or the Allmans?
Derek Trucks: On a musical level, it’s pretty much the same across the board. As long as it’s sparking, you don’t put too much thought into it after the fact. As far as the career success, it’s more personal with your own band. I’ve been playing with these guys for twelve or thirteen years. To see it come around from 250 shows a year in a van to being in a tour bus feels good. I don’t have the same story with my other situations. When you play music long enough with the same folks it becomes a family. It’s personal, and you root for them in all situations.
My group has made amazing sacrifices to stick with something they believed in. I don’t see that too much in this business. To work so hard for something without financial return just doesn’t happen in 2006. It’s nice to see the faint light at the end of the tunnel ratchet up a bit!
For a long time we were on the chitlin’ circuit. We’re not looking to get out of hand now, but to play nice theatres and step it up a notch wouldn’t be terrible. I definitely don’t want it to change more than that. You know, to become insincere and impersonal and play sheds and stadiums. But there’s a nice middle ground there, and hopefully we can find a decent sized audience for our songs.
Connect Savannah: I remember playing videogames with you over a decade ago when you used to play Congress Street Station with your first band. You’ve had a loyal following here ever since. What’s your take on your Savannah fans?
Derek Trucks: Especially with the festival for the past few years, it’s one of the stronger spots for the band. Atlanta, Savannah and New York City have been good to the group. I live in Jacksonville and my band lives in Atlanta, so it’s great to have a place just down the road where we feel comfortable.
The Derek Trucks Band plays Trustees Theatre on Thursday night, March 30 at 8:00 p.m. with Oteil Burbridge & The Peacemakers. For tickets, call 525-5050, or go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org.