By Scott McLennan
Each concert offered all that the Tedeschi Trucks Band can do.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s sold-out three-night stand at Boston’s Orpheum Theater staged Dec. 5-7 was a portrait of rebirth and rededication, as the band crafted a completely different show each night. Taken in total, the performances gave fans every reason to believe that, coming into its 10th anniversary in 2020, this group still has miles to go.
Such was not the case at the beginning of the year, or even that apparent at Tedeschi Trucks Band’s traditional year-ending performances in Boston in 2018, when the shows had a frantic pace with different bass players cycling in and out as the band was looking for a replacement for the departing Tim Lefebvre.
A bigger blow hit in February when keyboard player Kofi Burbridge died while on a medical leave from the band that he was instrumental in shaping with founders Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi.
There are many TTB songs about resilience and overcoming, and this band took their message to heart. The group that in February dressed in funeral black, supplying an extended musical eulogy to Burbridge when playing a show in Brooklyn to celebrate the release of its album Signs, has, by the time it hit Boston, become confident, fearless, and simply full of life.
TTB found fresh ways into songs it has been playing since day one — “Midnight in Harlem” stands as an anthem for the ages. And the band still pushes itself, as when the group opened the second sets to Friday’s and Saturday’s concerts with numbers performed in stripped-down fashion on acoustic guitars, upright bass, and minimal percussion.
The 12-piece TTB is tailor made for a multi-night residency where it can stretch out and develop a narrative arc that probes the many angles to the group’s sound. The band does multiple nights now in New York City, Chicago, and Washington as well as Boston. But the Boston run has taken on the feel of a state of the union address, as the TTB typically recaps highlights from the previous months of work, doling out whatever new cover songs clicked, as well as newly released original material.
This year, the band made nods to its Lockn’ Festival recreation of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album by playing that record’s tender “I Am Yours” during Friday’s portion of acoustic numbers and a smoldering “Bell Bottom Blues” on Saturday.
Among the encores, the band played Elton John’s “Border Song” on Thursday and James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” on Friday, the former brought into the repertoire this year, the latter revived after a three-year layoff.
The band also pulled out such rarities as a cover of Junior Wells’s “Little by Little,” a song in Tedeschi’s arsenal when she was an up-and-coming blues artist in the Boston scene. The band also included the year’s only performances of its originals “Calling Out to You,” done in the acoustic set Saturday, and soulful “Crying Over You.”
The acoustic sets were laden with blues classics such as “It Hurts Me Too,” “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” “Preachin’ Blues,” “44 Blues,” “Meet Me in the Bottom,” and “Women Be Wise.”
And of course plenty of tunes off Signs and its accompanying “High and Mighty” EP made it into the run, moving from the delicate acoustic read of “When Will I Begin” on Saturday to a raging “Signs, High Times” performed on Friday.
The other declaration made during the residency concerned people, not songs. Keyboard player Gabe Dixon and bass player Brandon Boone had numerous spotlight moments, sort of like the band was conducting a pinning ceremony for the two. Boone’s outrageous solo on the song “Shame” during Thursday’s show had the Orpheum audience clapping along in a complex rhythm. Dixon played several beautiful solos, a standout being the piano part he crafted for Tedeschi’s transcendent rendition of “Angel from Montgomery” on Friday night. Boone and Dixon are exerting more influence on the band’s sound, with the rest of the troupe adapting to the funkier elements present in the newer members’ playing styles.
The band performed 61 different songs, with no repeats across the five sets played over the three nights; gritty rock ‘n’ rollers The National Reserve played an opening set Thursday, while TTB played “evening with” two-set shows Friday and Saturday.
Each concert offered all that the TTB can do, with opportunities for sax player Kebbi Williams, trumpet player Ephraim Owens, trombone player Elizabeth Lea, singers Mike Mattison, Mark Rivers, and Alecia Chakour, drummers J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell, bassist Boone, and keyboard player Dixon to shine alongside the group’s namesakes and drivers. And each show also boasted its own flavor and vibe.
Thursday’s outing was full of subtle moves, highlighting how expansive yet nimble this huge band can be. Trucks tucked all sorts of interesting little licks and riffs into songs, typically putting accents on a vocal line or weaving something interesting with one of the horn players.
Friday was a showcase for Tedeschi, whose fiery guitar work and commanding vocals on the opening “Laugh About It” carried through the whole concert. Tedeschi and Trucks brought down the house, though, with the lightest of touches when they were joined by Williams on flute to play “Back Where I Started” to honor Yonrico Scott, longtime drummer in Trucks’s pre-TTB band who died this year.
Saturday was a Derek fest, as Trucks made the case that he is the most dynamic guitar player out there right now. Without stepping on anyone else’s role, Trucks managed to deploy electrifying and mesmerizing solos on just about everything the band played. And when you thought he couldn’t possibly take it higher, he did with a masterful stretch that covered the Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams” followed by TTB’s guitar-blowout vehicle “The Storm” that morphed into the Allmans’ “Whipping Post;” here was Trucks honoring his time as a member of the Allmans and showing how he is taking that legacy into fresh sonic terrain.
Tedeschi, however, was not sitting on the sidelines for any of it. She turned the residency’s final number, The Beatles’ (by way Joe Cocker’s version) “With a Little Help From My Friends,” into a wailing, barely controlled celebration of all the band has accomplished, a requiem for those who died and a declaration to carrying on.
In a time when it is easy to grow cynical about everything we see and hear, the Tedeschi Trucks Band stands out as much for its authenticity and passion as for its raw talent.
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.