This edition of Wheels of Soul works just fine as a display of post-Allman Brothers Band/post-Lynyrd Skynyrd/ post-Tom Petty musical sensibilities shaped in the South.
Wheels of Soul 2018, featuring Tedeschi Trucks Band, Drive-By Truckers and Marcus King Band at the Xfinity Center Mansfield, July 8.
By Scott McLennan
Like the band that founded it, the Wheels of Soul tour has been and remains an elastic and electrifying exploration of music rooted in various traditions but expertly crafted to connect with contemporary times and listeners.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band is the driving force behind Wheels of Soul, having uncorked the idea in 2015 as a three-band road show that proffered plenty of opportunities for collaboration among the participating acts. The tour’s lineup this year is perhaps its most daring with the inclusion of Drive-By Truckers, a band that previously had no real connection to the TTB lineage as have previous artists that were tapped for the show.
Yet, with the Drive-By Truckers and the Marcus King Band in the opening slots, this edition of Wheels of Soul works just fine as a display of post-Allman Brothers Band/post-Lynyrd Skynyrd/ post-Tom Petty musical sensibilities shaped in the South.
King, who at 21 is building a mighty buzz with his fierce guitar work and soulful vocals, opened the concert with a brisk 30-minute set. King’s songs brought together muscular guitar riffs and simmering, horn-driven grooves. Live, the King band easily pulls off a stunning set; the challenge now is for the young artist is to create tunes with a more lingering impact.
Sturdy songs are exactly what Drive-By Truckers offer, and it is most likely what earned them a spot on the tour. Head Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been consistently sending out smart, provocative, and swampy countrified rock ’n’ roll missives since the mid-’90s. The DBT’s latest album, American Band, is ostensibly a protest record, but its political targets and messages are neither cleanly nor clearly discernible. The band’s restlessness grew through its set, reaching a boiling point on “Surrender Under Protest.”
The headlining Tedeschi Trucks Band amplified the exhilarating qualities of the opening acts. The 12-member band, which serves up an impressive array of musical chops, has expanded on a following that originally combined fans of singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi’s solo blues band and Derek Trucks’ virtuoso guitar work in his solo band and with the Allman Brothers Band. Since the married couple joined musical forces in 2010, the TTB has produced an impressive body of original songs to play alongside the numerous cover songs that were originally made famous by its musical heroes.
“Shame,” a new tune destined for the group’s next studio album, turned into one of the night’s musical peaks. Tedeschi’s impassioned vocal delivery was galvanizing, and Trucks worked up a guitar solo that soared into a brief run of “Afro Blue” that was evocative of John Coltrane’s version — before returning the tune to Tedeschi, who brought home the song’s message of looking for hope in unsettled times. In that one moment, the TTB brilliantly stitched together the musical fluidity on display in King’s band with the poignancy offered up by the Drive-By Truckers.
With a new TTB album in the offing, the band feels like digging into its catalog and performing a few older gems that have not been in steady rotation lately. On Sunday, “Part of Me,” a buoyant Motown-influenced number, made a welcome return, especially with its punched up vocal and horn arrangements.
And Tedeschi reached back into her days of performing in blues clubs around Massachusetts, pulling out a searing version of “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” Tedeschi’s steely guitar solo posited a six-string slant against the more fluid solos of Trucks, but it was no less powerful.
While the TTB bears the name of its two guitarists, every member of the group – comprising three singers, three horn players, bass player, two drummers, and a keyboardist who doubles on flute — is integral to the sound. Each member is given an opportunity to step up and shine. Trucks, however, is the undisputed leader of the project; he earns the role by pushing the ensemble ever toward the spiritual in its playing, even when the band is wrapping its talents around a rollicking barn burner, such as “Get What You Deserve.”
While a soul-rock band at heart, the TTB is also inspired by the classic jazz big bands, groups that put their distinctive stamp on material from the Great American Songbook. In the same way, the TTB is drafting its own book of sacred texts, with passages offered up Sunday from Derek and the Dominos (“Anyday”), Bob Dylan (“Going, Going, Gone”), and Billy Taylor by way of Nina Simone (“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”).
And the night’s transcendent finale was built on the pairing of Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” King and his bandmates keyboard player Deshawn Alexander, sax player Dean Mitchell, and trumpet/trombone player Justin Johnson joined in, swelling the ensemble on stage to 16 musicians who played with a precision and passion that was far more spectacular than the fireworks display set off at the end of the show.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene