Editor’s note: The Tedeschi Trucks Band plays at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Aug. 28. Los Lobos opens.
For the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the pandemic period is likely to stand as a key moment in what has already been an auspicious career for the talented 12-person unit.
In February 2019, keyboardist, flautist and songwriter Kofi Burbridge died from complications related to a 2017 heart attack, just as the band’s fourth album, “Signs,” was released.
The band pushed ahead and went on tour with keyboardist/singer Gabe Dixon coming on board and Brandon Boone replacing bassist Tim Lefebvre, who left the Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2018. The band even managed to join forces with guitarists Trey Anastasio (from Phish) and Doyle Bramhall II in August 2019 to perform the classic Derek & the Dominos album “Layla” at the LOCKN’ Festival. That performance was released last year as “Layla Revisited: Live From LOCKN’.”
But going into 2020, guitarist Derek Trucks and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi felt it was time to take stock of the band.
“After we lost Kofi, it was such a blow to the band, obviously,” Trucks said in an early June phone interview. “We feel like a good part of the heart (was lost), he was such a big part of our lives.
This is kind of wild timing, but we had planned to take March, April, May and some of June off,” he said. “It was to just do a hard re-set after Kofi and just take some time off and think about what we wanted to do, if we wanted to pivot. We couldn’t just keep rolling like nothing had happened.”
As it turned out, of course, the pandemic hit that March and the three-month break turned into a pause from touring the extended well into 2021. And the band organically reinvented itself while making what is surely one of the most audacious musical statements in rock history – a series of four musically and thematically linked albums, all titled under the banner of “I Am The Moon.” They will each be released about a month apart this summer. The first of those albums, “I Am The Moon – 1. Crescent,” arrived on June 3.
“We were already thinking this (band) has to be different going forward. We can’t go about it the same way,” Trucks said. “And then when we started doing these (writing) sessions (for “I Am The Moon”), we just realized there are a lot of ways to go about this musically. The energy that was in the room with Gabe and Brandon and (new drummer) Isaac (Eady), and the band was just so easy. It was really refreshing. It was time for that shift. We started writing a lot more together and there was just a different sense of it. We were really lucky that we came across those guys when we did.
“It’s a different band,” the guitarist said. “I mean, obviously, the first 10 years of it, I mean, there’s incredible music and stuff that’s just going to be the center of what we do, but I really do feel like it’s a different chapter, for sure.”
The first chapter opened in 2010 when husband and wife Trucks and Tedeschi merged their careers (Trucks leading his own Derek Trucks Band while playing in the Allman Brothers Band and in Eric Clapton’s band, while Tedeschi was a solo artist) to create the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which today also includes drummer Tyler Greenwell, Kebbi Williams (saxophone), Erphraim Owens (trumpet), Elizabeth Lea (trombone), lead vocalist and harmony vocalist Mike Mattison and harmony vocalists Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour.
Drawing on their influences in rock, blues, soul, country and jazz, the first four Tedeschi Trucks Band studio albums deftly blended those styles into a cohesive whole with a mix of rockers and ballads that were finely crafted and played with finesse and fire.
Now “I Am The Moon” seems certain to elevate the Tedeschi Trucks Band into any conversation about today’s best bands.
The seeds for the four-album project were planted not long after the LOCKN’ performance of “Layla” when singer Mike Mattison noted he’d read the 12th century poem by Nizami Ganjavi called “Layla and Majnun,” which inspired the original “Layla” album and its theme of a man loving a woman he can’t have.
Mattison saw some other perspectives that might be worth exploring in the poem.
“He just threw out ‘You know, I think it would be interesting, after re-reading the poem, it would be interesting (to consider) what did Layla think about this? What would be her perspective of the songs?’” Trucks recalled. “And immediately the light bulb went off.”
The band members dove in, and over the next several months, the 24 songs on the four “I Am The Moon” albums emerged. Just as importantly, Dixon and Greenwell joined Trucks, Tedeschi and Mattison as key songwriting contributors for the project. As things progressed, the project seemingly took on a life of its own.
“We just kind of let the songs come out,” Trucks said. “There wasn’t a lot of talk about putting things in places or even if was going to be a record at all. There was no thought of that until we really got probably halfway down the road and realized there was a lot of material there. Then you started kind of kicking around, this isn’t a rock opera. We don’t want things to be too literal or tied to anything, but you know what, this concept from the story is really cool, this thing we had touched on. Let’s keep this one in mind. If anyone’s writing, just think about this little piece of it. Then the thing had its own gravity, the project did, writing toward the project.
“But we started listening to all of the material and realized that this is too much for one sitting,” he said. “That’s when we had the idea to break it into parts.”
While the lyrics of the four albums provide a connecting thread (although they don’t attempt to tell a linear story), Trucks feels the music itself also plays a big part in giving the “I Am The Moon” albums a cohesive feel.
Together the albums provide a rich musical banquet. The band’s soul influence courses through the lovely ballads “Hear My Dear” and “I Am The Moon” and the rousing “Ain’t That Something.” The band’s Southern roots shine through on the richly melodic blues-tinged ballad “Rainy Day” and the easy-going “Soul Sweet Song.” Country and gospel collide nicely on the frisky “So Long Savior.” Country, pop and some New Orleans-ish reverie meet up on the buoyant “Fall In.” The instrumental prowess of Trucks (widely considered the finest slide guitarist going today) and the rest of the band is showcased on “Gravity” and the free-wheeling extended instrumental “Pasaquan.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band figures to change up their set lists from show to show as the group headlines their Wheels of Soul tour this summer (with openers the Gabe Dixon Band – the keyboardist/singer’s long-running group – and Los Lobos, the great veteran band touring behind their Grammy-winning current album “Native Sons”).
“We’re not going to play any of the new material before each record is released, and only the first one is out,” Trucks said. “So we’ll definitely play some of the material from the first record of the four that are coming out. Then I think midway through the ‘Wheels of Soul,’ the second album will come out so we’ll probably sprinkle in a few off those, too. Yeah, we’ve (also) been trying to think of tunes to play with the guys from Los Lobos. It’s going to be fun.”
-By Alan Sculley, Last Word Features