“I got one! I got one!” A tow-haired boy, probably age 5 or 6, sped past us, eyes agog, screaming ecstatically and rushing to show his family the firefly he’d apparently just captured between his trembling, cupped hands. It was the early evening of July 4th, my wife and I taking in a dazzling setting overlooking the Hudson River, dusk just arriving, as all around us young children kicked soccer balls and played “red rover” with complete carefree delight anticipating the soon-to-come fireworks display. The firefly-catching boy unfurled his mitts to present his cherished acquisition, but alas there was none to show. Utterly unfazed, he gleefully dashed off in search of another prize.
The world can often seem like a tough place to live in, and as you reach a certain age, if you’re at all like me, you can find yourself wondering, sometimes even grasping, for what on earth can ever make you feel that type of joy again. Beyond contented, but blissful. And free. For some I know, it might be hitting that perfect wedge approach shot inches from the hole (as my golf pals know, I’d rather rake the trap). Others find their peace of mind, and endorphins, from an arduous run or bike ride. But for me, the way I can still occasionally find that zone, is through music, music of all kinds, in lots of different atmospheres, and even via various skill levels (and yes, I realize mine is the only sedentary pursuit). Any musical interaction is an instant mood changer. But true joy – the kind I casually observed from nearby children on Independence Day – is predominantly attainable when connecting to a truly sublime practitioner, someone like Derek Trucks.
At this point I think a lot of people are familiar with Derek Trucks, but in my musical travels I also find that a lot are still not. Now 40 years old, Trucks, the nephew of original Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, was not yet legal to drink when he first joined his uncle’s venerable band in 1999. Few would dispute that he soon became the focal point of the last iteration of the group, more or less stepping into the “Duane” role in the band, and for 15 years, until the Allmans finally called it a Hall of Fame career, performing slide guitar work that was breathtaking for its virtuosity and stunning in its creativity. Word spread. A 2006 article in The Wall Street Journal described him as “the most awe-inspiring guitar player performing today,” while a 2011 Rolling Stone list of “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” ranked him 16th best ever (only 7 in front of him are still alive, and other than sprightly 64-year-old Eddie Van Halen, all are in their mid-’70’s). I can assure you Trucks hasn’t gotten any worse since then. Around that same time, after having also led his own Derek Trucks Band throughout most of the Allmans period, Trucks and his wife, Susan Tedeschi, formed the Tedeschi Trucks Band, a tightly-arranged yet blistering 12-piece powerhouse revue in the vein of Joe Cocker and Leon Russell’s legendary 1970 ensemble, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and certainly unlike anything currently operating in the world of rock, blues, and soul. Their fourth studio album, “Signs,” was released in early 2019, and though their initial three records are all high among my favorites of this decade (or any decade), this latest effort implausibly only raises their ridiculously high bar.
As with all of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s work, both on studio recordings and in live shows, the whole band is featured. Always. And as alluded to, that’s a lot: two drummers, three backing singers, and a three-piece horn section go along with bass, keyboards, and, of course, Tedeschi, Trucks’ band and life partner, whose vibrant, captivating vocals command notice as they move between the potent rasp of Janis Joplin and the silky phrasing of Bonnie Raitt. Still, it is Trucks’ otherworldly playing that brings me and all my fellow joy-seekers to the party (like that awful 2003 song ‘Milkshake,’ I’m tempted to say Trucks is what brings all the boys to the yard). He’s the frontman, not for any significant stage presence – he’s completely serene, sometimes almost off-puttingly so, when playing – but simply through his pure artistic brilliance. No one builds a solo the way he does, slowly growing in pitch and intensity until cresting in mesmerizing, fluid slide trips up the frets and rapid-fire wristy assaults on the strings. I often think of his solos as being like waves first developing at sea with apparent harmlessness, only to amass force and then crash violently at the shore moments later. With his trademark effortlessness, Trucks assembles musical crescendos that leave even his long-held fans awestruck and in ecstatic exhaustion. Many before him have ascended to the mythical mantel of greatest guitar God: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Duane Allman, Trucks’ forerunner and most direct influence. Today that label unquestionably belongs, at least to my ears, to Derek Trucks. He’s playing on a different plane than anyone else: preternaturally graceful yet unmercifully efficient. He’s the Gretzky of guitar.
On ‘I’m Gonna Be There’ (our featured song), one of the 11 outstanding new tracks from “Signs,” the band grooves mightily through several funk-filled verses, with Tedeschi’s vocals as well as some stylish strings rising triumphantly for the choruses, while Trucks patiently waits for his time; his first unmistakable slide notes don’t curl in until more than three minutes have passed, when he briefly accents a few lines. Then, at 3:25, as the chord progressions and gospel voices smoothly transform into something seemingly plucked from within Stevie Wonder’s masterwork “Songs In The Key Of Life” (the last two-thirds of the track ‘As’ to be exact), Trucks, slowly, initiates a transcendent 2-minute passage. It’s ethereal, maybe even spiritual, but most definitely euphoric. And I’m like a joyful kid on the 4th of July: the fireworks have begun.