By Scott McLennan
For Boston, Derek Trucks designs the shows to celebrate Susan Tedeschi’s march from local clubs to being a commanding presence on concert stages around the world.
Tedeschi Trucks Band, November 31, December 1, 3, and 4, at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston
The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s four-night residency wrapped up on December 4 on a note of flat-out celebration. This terrific band was back in full force. It’s co-founder, Susan Tedeschi, was back in front of hometown crowds. Live music was back. And for the hell of it, pick a holiday to celebrate while we’re all together.
Yet, this wasn’t a simple unleashing of musical wilding or a band willing to let all of the crowd-pleasing energy embedded in the occasion be enough to fuel the experience.
Over the course of four nights, the Tedeschi Trucks Band laid out thoughtful, provocative, and glorious sets of music comprising both deep dives into its catalog of original songs as well as into its massive store of material written and performed by those who have influenced and shaped the tastes of this band and its audience.
In 2019, the last time it was able to set up in the Orpheum, the band made things interesting by delivering three concerts without repeating a single song. This year, many songs surfaced twice as the band unfurled a two-set show on November 30, a single long set on Dececember 1, and a pair of two-set shows on December 3 and 4. Still, just as was the case in 2019, no two shows were alike
Led by married couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, the 12-piece ensemble made a fresh attack into each and every song. Perhaps the tune “Shame” offered the best example of this.
“Shame” first emerged as a blast of righteous anger during the tumult of the Trump years. It has grown into an epic concert number, one that summons fiery vocal deliveries from Tedeschi and impassioned soloing from Trucks. On Night 2 of this run, Trucks led his bandmates through the jazz standard “Afro Blue” as an introduction to “Shame” and then, working particularly well with bassist Brandon Boone, wove “Afro Blue” motifs throughout an extended jam that pushed “Shame” toward the stratosphere.
Fast forward to Night 3 and “Shame” appears again on the setlist. Except this time Trucks, keyboard player Gabe Dixon, drummers Tyler Greenwell and Isaac Eady, sax player Kebbi Williams, trumpet player Ephraim Owens, and trombone player Elizabeth Lea made a run through “Greensleeves” before steering into the moment when Tedeschi launches “Shame.”
While each night was unique, there were some unifying themes to the week. First, these concerts are a love letter from Tedeschi to the people and places that supported and nurtured her career. Though Tedeschi, a Massachusetts native now living in Florida, is front and center at any given TTB performance, these Orpheum concerts have become even more spectacular showcases for her guitar playing, singing, songwriting, and overall leadership role in the group. Trucks remains the conductor at all times, but for Boston he designs the shows to celebrate Tedeschi’s march from local clubs to being a commanding presence on concert stages around the world.
Second, though each night had its own flavor, all of the shows were exercises in balancing the precision of an orchestra and the imagination of a free-jazz ensemble. A relatively “simple” song such as “Joyful Noise,” which opened the final set on Night 4, for instance, reaches the transcendent as the tune is passed around different players on the stage (and when the transitions go off just right, Trucks grins like it’s nobody’s business). It’s all about knowing the plan and then executing it with flair.
Third, with the TTB, trajectory is the secret weapon. Whether it’s a song, a concert, or a series of performances, the band is masterful at pushing forward the energy and emotion of its music. And by masterful, I mean intentional; the climaxes of Night 4 didn’t overshadow the highest points of Night 1. Instead, the TTB collective is expert at controlling its dynamic range and manipulating the moment’s emotional temperature. On Night 1, for example, the sprawling “Idle Wind” melted down to near silence before Trucks shattered the song’s structure with a surge of guitar squall that paved the way for the drummers to solo, which led to a soaring crescendo as the rest of the band fell back into the groove.
The four shows in total touched on all of the band’s albums, including this year’s release of the Layla Revisited concert that the TTB performed with guest guitarists Trey Anastasio and Doyle Bramhall III at the 2019 LOCKN’ Festival. Here are some recaps and reflections on each night:
Tuesday, November 30 – The TTB joined the current wave of Beatlemania inspired by the new Peter Jackson documentary on the Fab Four by kicking off its concert with “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Though Tedeschi had one glorious turn after another all night (a dip into her solo career with “Just Won’t Burn” and a gorgeous reading of Neil Young’s “Helpless” were standouts), singer Mike Mattison crafted some wonderful and often gritty counterpoints, particularly with his boozy blues “Life is Crazy” and a cover of Taj Mahal’s adaptation of Sleepy John Estes’s “Everybody’s Got to Change Sometime.”
Singers Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour also had moments to shine, respectively, on TTB standards “Made Up Mind” and “Bound for Glory.”
On the whole, the band was animated and delivered a show that flaunted its soul and range.
Wednesday, December 1- If Night 1 felt a bit like a Motown or Stax revue, Night 2 came across more like a trip to Woodstock. Lots of psychedelic touches were sprinkled into the one long set that followed a pleasing opening performance by Meko Marks. The band focused on original material for the first five songs, deploying the rarely played “Until You Remember” and “Crying Over You” to fine effect.
Keyboard player Gabe Dixon and the horn players had more prominent roles during Night 2. The TTB also tapped into its legacy connection to the Allman Brothers Band, which Trucks was a member of from 1999 to 2014, playing alongside his uncle, founding ABB drummer Butch Trucks. Dixon delivered Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong,” a staple for the Allman Brothers Band, and Trucks played an abbreviated version of the Allmans’ “Les Bres in A Minor.” Yet the Allmans were given some stiff competition. The TTB also featured material made popular by Cream (“Outside Woman Blues”), Derek and the Dominos (“Anyday”), the Box Tops (“The Letter”) and B.B. King (“How Blue Can You Get”). But the most unexpected covers came as encores. First Tedeschi and Dixon debuted a stunning duo performance of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and then the whole band revived “It Ain’t Easy,” the Ron Davies song that most learned from David Bowie’s version on the Ziggy Stardust album and was for a short time in the TTB’s concert rotation.
Speaking of Dixon, his contributions to the band cannot be overstated. Originally hired in January 2019 to fill in for an ailing Kofi Burbridge, Dixon stayed in the role after Burbridge’s unexpected death the following month. Dixon blossomed in the band’s pared-down “Fireside Sessions” unit that toured during the summer, and he has emerged in the full band with the ability to exert his own voice and style while upholding Burbridge’s crucial legacy with the group.
Friday December 3 – This felt like one long highlight reel. The band was in a groove that invited every member to shine while the ensemble as a whole demonstrated its breadth and depth. The first set spanned the slinky “Tell The Truth” from Layla Revisited to a yearning “Looking for Answers” from Tedeschi’s pre-TTB solo career to a searing pairing of “Leaving Trunk” (another Estes-by-way-of-Mahal blues) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s jazz classic “Volunteered Slavery.” The band returned for the second set with a handful of songs performed on acoustic guitars and stripped-down percussion accented by minimal horns and lots of harmony vocals. Tedeschi dusted off “It Hurt So Bad,” another of her pre-TTB signatures that the hometown crowd ate up. And Mattison led the charge through the weird country honk of the Rolling Stones’ deep cut “Dear Doctor.” And in a seeming nod to the recent release of the documentary Learning to Live Together, which juxtaposes Joe Cocker’s famous “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour with TTB’s 2015 tribute to that bit of storied rock and soul history, the band served up a lengthy version of “Space Captain” for an encore. If you’re going to sell a movie, this is how you do it.
Saturday, December 4 – The residency’s finale kept the trajectory going via the boost provided by Trucks’s endless supply of dazzling solos. Whatever restraint he employed on the previous nights was tossed aside in the name of reaching the summit of some imagined musical peak. From song to song, Trucks wasn’t trying to align himself with other acclaimed guitarists (pick any one: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, or any of the Kings: B.B., Freddie, or Albert). No, he was aspiring to the soloist sorcery of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ravi Shankar, and the like. By the time he arrived at a stunning finale of the Allmans’ “Dreams” and then an arrangement of the original “The Storm” — which absorbs the Allmans’ “Whipping Post” — Trucks had pushed the boundaries of his instrument to unimaginable limits. Even though you kind of suspected going in that he would hit these numbers, their impact was still revelatory.
All that being said, and true to the spirit of the previous shows, Tedeschi earned the night’s (and I believe the week’s) biggest ovation for her version of the Bobby “Blue” Bland hit “I Pity the Fool.” She simply lost herself in the music and performed like an artist possessed. An impressed Trucks handed his wife a towel while the crowd roared at song’s end.
The TTB has typically concluded its year-end run with an exultant version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” And given it is a Beatles song that was part of Cocker’s “Mad Dogs” repertoire, there was every reason to believe we’d be happily sent on our way humming that tune.
Yet, perhaps to prove the point that none of this is formulaic (sometimes ritualistic, but that’s different), the band gave us one more take on Mitchell’s “River” and then ended its year with a mighty version of “Bound for Glory,” a song that has been with the band since its 2010 inception.
This run may have been a reflection on the past year, but it felt more like the creative battle cry of a band ready to charge ahead.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, 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.