Rock CD Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band Provides “Signs” of the Time

By Scot McLennan

This studio outing emphasizes superb ensemble playing; the result is a beguiling album in which just about every note shines.

Signs, Tedeschi Trucks Band (Fantasy Recordings)

There are 12 members in the Tedeschi Trucks Band, each an outstanding talent capable of stealing the spotlight. Yet the band’s new record, Signs, doesn’t offer many opportunities for showboating. Instead, it emphasizes superb ensemble playing that results in a beguiling album in which just about every note shines.

With two of music’s finest guitar players leading the TTB, it’s expected that any of the group’s albums will be an orgy of bluesy solos and note-spewing jams. Yet TTB has never trekked down that predictable path with its studio recordings. If you want to hear the band stretch out, go see the Tedeschi Trucks Band in concert (the band plays at the Levitate Festival in Marshfield on July 12 and at the bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford, N.H., on July 13). The group’s studio outings have become increasingly detailed and nuanced, accentuating the group’s admirable commitment to craft.

Signs is full of dynamic shifts and swings, flaunting the band’s skill at blending the blues, rock, country, soul, jazz, and funk into a potent musical stew. The opening track, “Signs, High Times” displays the group’s full arsenal: Singers Mike Mattison, Alecia Chakour, and Mark Rivers divvy up parts with lead vocalist Tedeschi; bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummers J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell unleash a beast of a groove, with assistance from Allman Brothers Band percussionist Marc Quinones on congas; keyboard player Kofi Burbrideg slathers on a layer of funky electric piano fills; sax player Kebbi Williams, trumpet player Ephraim Owens, and trombone player Elizabeth Lea  put some swing into the mix; and Trucks takes out the song with a few bars of sizzling guitar work. All of that is packed into three minutes and fifty seconds.

Signs, TTB’s fourth studio album, marks just how far the band has come since guitar heroes and married couple Tedeschi and Trucks joined musical forces in 2010. The writing, production, and overall artistic vision are confident; this is a band that is willing to push itself into discovering fresh ways to engage as a group of musicians — a conviviality that benefits  a fan base that keeps growing.

After the record’s explosive opening, the remaining 10 tracks and 40-odd minutes are no less thrilling, but they don’t replicate the initial pattern. There is a mix of slow-burners, such as “I’m Gonna Be There,” and rousing rockers along the lines of “Hard Case.” Not every song features every element in the band, though each member of the band shines at some point. And on four songs, the group even broadens its regularly expansive sound by including a string section comprising two violins, a viola, and a cello.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band. Photo: Shervin Laninez

As the TTB worked on Signs, the band experienced significant losses and setbacks. Mentor Bruce Hampton died. Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks (Derek’s uncle), who nurtured Trucks’ career by bringing him into the Allman Brothers Band, also died. Burbridge was sidelined by emergency cardiac surgery (and is again recovering from a heart procedure). The emotions generated by their traumas resonate in the songs

“Strengthen What Remains” and “When Will I Begin”’ reflect sadness and sorrow, but don’t dwell on those feelings, eventually pushing through to more hopeful spaces.

Other songs, such as “Shame” and “All the World,” take the pulse of our times and sound dire warnings, yet also suggest we take action for the sake of higher ideals. “Signs” is at times deeply personal without turning maudlin. It somehow manages to square the circle — it is political without becoming polarizing.

The band’s parting shot is, fittingly, “The Ending,” a wry ballad inspired by the larger-than-life Hampton and delivered via Trucks on a resonator guitar and regular TTB collaborator Oliver Wood on acoustic guitar playing alongside Tedeschi’s soulful vocals. Stripped down as it is, “The Ending” turns out to be no less powerful than the band’s full-throated opening salvo.

All of these songs are indeed vital Signs.

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.

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