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October 22, 2014

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Q+A: Derek Trucks enters new phase of career with Tedeschi Trucks Band

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Mark Seliger

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is led by husband-and-wife musicians Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi.

When it comes to Derek Trucks, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The bad news is that the electrifying guitarist has announced he’s leaving The Allman Brothers Band, the group co-founded by his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks.

The good news is that he’ll now have more time to devote to The Tedeschi Trucks Band, the 11-piece blues-rock-soul-gospel ensemble he founded with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, in 2010.

It’s been a busy past 15 years for Trucks, who, besides leading his own solo band, toured with Eric Clapton and Phil Lesh during his Allman Brothers run. In the meantime, The Tedeschi Trucks Band, performing at Brooklyn Bowl in the Linq through Saturday, has developed into a high-flying live act with 2014 tour dates in North America, Europe and Asia.

The 34-year-old Trucks (he turns 35 on June 8) checked in ahead of his band's Brooklyn Bowl run:

You just returned from the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai. What was the reception to your music over there?

Shockingly good, I’ve got to say. I didn’t know what to expect. But our first time being on the subcontinent, I think maybe there were years and years of people waiting to see some band in this family of bands. There was a lot of anticipation that I didn’t expect, maybe 4,500 people at the show. Probably 10 times as many as I expected.

I know you travel with the kids when you’re in the states. Did they come with you guys?

Not on those trips, just because you don’t know what to expect and how the travel and the hang is going to be. They travel with us quite a bit. I think next time we go to Japan, we’ll take the kids. They’ve certainly been overseas with us, but on these trips, we dip our toe in the water first.

I wanted to talk about The Allman Brothers before we dive into your own band. You and Warren Haynes announced that you’re leaving the group, and Gregg Allman said that the band will retire from touring after this year. Obviously, these are big personal decisions for you guys, but has the greater significance of what all this means in terms of rock ’n’ roll history and the 45-year reign of the band caught up with you yet?

I’ve been thinking about this for, really, six or seven years, so I think I’ve gone through all those stages. I really tried to wind it down at the 40th anniversary, and even about the time I started this new band, when I put my band (The Derek Trucks Band) on hold, starting something new, really my idea was to also step away from The Allman Brothers at the same time. I’ve had this feeling for a long time — I just feel like the history and the legacy and the story of this band is so unique and powerful, I would love to see it go out on top and control its own destiny and not let it do what a lot of other bands do, which is keep hammering it way pass the shelf life. Up to this point, I don’t think we have. There’s been ups and downs, but the music we made at this last Beacon run was pretty magical. There were a few nights it was as good as any that this version of the band has ever had. But I don’t want to see it do what a lot of athletes do. You don’t want to see it go those extra two fights. So, in some way, I’ve been trying to push that along. But you can only do so much. At a certain point, that’s all you can do is step away. So that was my idea at 45. Really, the reason why I did the 42nd, 43rd, 44th year, was that so we could all go out together at 45. That was the idea, like, all right let’s make it to this milestone and let’s put the legacy up where it needs to be. I think as that date started approaching, not everyone dealt with the agreement the same way. And I get it. It feels a lot different from different perspectives and different points in your career. For me, it’s been an absolute. They knew I was leaving after 45, and when word leaked, that’s when I had to throw out a statement, and of course, I told Warren because his thing all along is, the two of us need to go out at the same time. So that’s what ended up happening. Now what happens going forward? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve learned that with this thing, nothing is surprising.

It seems that with bands that are rooted in improvisation, there’s always this pull that brings people back, that notion of creating something new onstage every night. When you hear, “Oh, we’re retiring,” you’re always thinking that if you love creating this much, you’re never too far from getting back onstage again.

That’s the thing, I don’t think there’s any doubt that everybody involved is going to keep playing in different scenarios. I just think there’s something really magical about that collection of people and that name and that spirit and that music that it could go on indefinitely. You could plug people in and play that music, but I just feel like it’s been such an amazing story up to this point — even the reunion in ’89, the fact that they found Warren, who was the perfect fit, and Allen Woody, who kind of resurrected that original spirit of the band. The fact that I have that family connection and lineage made it legit for me to step in. The whole thing is pretty impossible, the fact that it made it to this point. When Dickey left, if Warren hadn’t had those eight years with the band prior, then I don’t think there was another guitar player that made sense to plug in for Dickey that would make it legit, no matter how good they are or their back story. The fact that it made it to this point and carried that spirit is a pretty impossible scenario. For me, that’s the thing that you want to protect. You want to see it go out correctly. But like I said before, at a certain point, you can only do so much.

I’m sure you guys were in the zone musically during your annual run at the Beacon Theater in New York earlier this year, but did you have a chance to step back when you were onstage and just appreciate the moment and what was happening?

Absolutely. You really do try to step onstage with that spirit of, if this is the last gig, let’s lay it out. But that becomes a bit of a cliché when you’re doing thousands of shows. But this time at the Beacon it was very much that. Just the health of the guys in the band and the age, there’s a chance every show at this point that it could be the last gig. That became real obvious when Gregg missed the last six shows of the Beacon run, so there was definitely a sense, and I think it was with everybody onstage, but I know with Warren and me and Oteil (Burbridge), that there was a feeling that this could be the last time you play this song with this band. And everybody laid it out there. I think, musically, the spirit of the band was better this year than it’s been in a long, long time. It was fun. There were some great moments, and everybody played more selflessly than usual. I don’t know if Butch would admit it or not, but he played with that sense, too, that if this is it, then I might die on the drum kit. And he almost did one night! He had to take a night off, too. We flew my little brother, Duane Trucks, in. The only gig in the 45-year history of the band that Butch has ever missed was this last Beacon run, and Duane Trucks filled in for him. There was something about that that felt somewhat poignant.

Now that the Allmans won’t be touring, or maybe won’t be touring as much, do you feel a responsibility with your own band to carry the torch as far as including some Allmans stuff in your set, or are you going to keep that separate?

I think down the road, I would think about it. I don’t think this close to it I would be plugging tunes in. When we put this band together, with that music being such a part of my life and the reason I started playing, I felt that weight in a good way the whole time. I feel like every band I’ve put together or been a part of is, in some ways, in the spirit of what that original band was doing. You lay it on the line every night. You’re not afraid to take it in any direction on any given night, and there’s a certain no-B.S. ethos to it. That’s always a part of it. But I do think once I finally step away from this, that meaning will be even a little bit stronger. You want to make sure that that music and that thought process behind it is still out there, living and breathing.

Once The Allman Brothers commitments are off your plate, how will that affect the Tedeschi Trucks Band?

Well, there’s a few things. Even if it’s only three months a year, with an 11-piece band, you’ve got a work quite a bit just to make it … work. Just to make ends meet, you’ve got to get out and hit it. So, for the last 10 or 15 years, it’s (been) just nonstop, there’s no breathing room. There’s no time to center. I’ve found that the very few times I’ve had two or three weeks off, when you do get back to playing, you want it more and you mean it more and it’s stronger, and you have something to talk about, something to play about. Just the space away from the road and the space away from playing shows and that constant tug that’s always there will just make the whole thing healthier. And being able to focus on one musical project is something I’ve never been able to do since I was 16 or 17. So I look forward to being able to key in on that, and then, with more downtime, you just have more time to get the core of the band together and write music and play, for no other reason than playing. You don’t have to be on the road. We can spend two, three weeks in the studio just making music and seeing where it goes, without it being on the clock or without it being scheduled. That’s where the magic is made, that’s where you stumble across new things, so, for me, that’s the most exciting aspect, is having time to center a little bit, time to collect your thoughts and think about the last 20 years of mayhem and raise your kids and then spend time making music with a band that you’re trying to grow and nurture, and not have to think about the road at all times. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but there have been quite a few years where I don’t think I unpacked my suitcase once in the course of a whole year. You get home, if you have four days off, you’re like, fuck it, I’m leaving my shit in a suitcase. I don’t need drawers.

Does this put pressure on The Tedeschi Trucks Band, since that is your only outlet now, to be that all-encompassing musical experience for you?

I guess. But the last six or eight months, it’s been so fulfilling musically for me. I don’t need anything else, you know? I don’t think there’s anything I feel like I’m missing. There are definitely things The Allman Brothers does that I haven’t felt with any other band, but I’ve done that for 15 years. I can say that about my solo band; there were things that I did with my solo group that I never did with any other group, but after 15 years of that, I feel like you can shed that skin and move on. I feel comfortable with new phases and moving on. I don’t feel that attachment where you always have to go back to the well and revisit the same things. I look forward to the unknown a little bit, where for the last 15, 20 years, there’s always been something musically to fall back on. You know if it’s not working with your own group for a tour or something, there’s this thing that’s going to be there and you can get it out there — or vice versa. If The Allman Brothers has been frustrating musically, I knew I could go back to this other thing. I look forward to it all being in one spot, and then you’re forced to make it your home, and your spot. I’m not worried about that; I look forward to it.

I had the pleasure of seeing you guys at the Doheny Blues Festival in California last year, and you guys absolutely killed it.

Cool, man. It’s a fun band. I don’t really see a ceiling for it. I feel like it’s all how much time and energy we can put into it right now. Obviously, trying to keep 11 human beings looking in the same direction, that’s a feat, but so far, so good.

I was curious how you view festivals. On one hand, they can’t be terribly lucrative, especially with an 11-piece band, but they’re also this great opportunity to turn people on to your music. How do you feel about festivals in general?

It really depends. Every one is different. But I feel like you gotta have that balance — sometimes playing in a theater in front of an audience that’s there to see your band, there’s something that’s so comfortable and relaxing about that. You can hear every note you play, you have time to sound check that day — it’s a much more controlled environment. Sometimes with festivals, it’s guerrilla warfare. You’re throwing 11 people onstage, there’s no sound check, the first song and a half everybody’s trying to adjust and get their thing together. It’s much more stressful, but when it works, it can really be magic because in a sense you’re having to win over an audience. There are some people there to see you, but there’s a lot of people there that have never seen the band, or there’s probably people there that have never heard of the band, and there’s probably people there that have and think they don’t like the band. You don’t know who you’re playing in front of, and you have to get up there and make something happen. So that part of it I love. This is something you get when you play overseas in front of audiences that you’ve never played before. You feel that moment, hopefully two or three songs into the set, where you get the crowd and the momentum halted and then started to get it turned in your favor. And there’s usually a moment where you can feel like, all right, now they’re with us. It’s usually a pretty definitive moment where you can feel the crowd decide that, yes, I like this. And then it becomes more like your own show, and then everyone relaxes and you dig deeper and you get into it. It’s work that way, but it’s fun to pepper those into a tour so you don’t get too complacent. Not everybody is a fan; you’ve got to get up there and work.

One of the things that’s been great about you and Susan together in the band, but also even before you guys got together and you had your separate projects, is your great taste in picking cover songs to perform. I wonder when you have those moments by yourself, are there guilty pleasures that you like to listen to that are maybe not the most critically popular selections?

You know, I wish I had a good answer. I hate to sound lame but I can’t really think of any. When I was a kid, I’m sure there was some stuff, but I so rarely have time to just kick back and listen to tunes that I try to make it count. I wish I had a good answer because I would not hide from it. Having kids, music pops up all the time that I would rather not be listening to, but it’s not very often that I don’t immediately just hate it. My daughter is apprehensive about playing music. It’s funny, I’ll walk in the house and if there’s something playing, it immediately stops. I’m like, “You can play it. I’m not going to yell at you.” But she knows I have a disdain for most of that stuff. So I’m the enforcer, apparently.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is at Brooklyn Bowl in the Linq today and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine. He first saw Derek Trucks perform in 1999 when The Derek Trucks Band opened for Hot Tuna at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Penn.

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