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The Core: Derek Trucks

Mike Greenhaus | April 24, 2017

Derek Trucks gives the state of the union on Tedeschi Trucks Band and comments on the tragic passing of his uncle and former bandmate Butch Trucks. 

Bigger, Stronger, Beefier

There was a pretty major shift when our bass player, Tim Lefebvre, came on board about two years ago—the band just became bigger, stronger, beefier. We were in a really good place. There was this great chemistry and the whole thing got more creative. Everybody just locked in. Since then, there’s been this steady build and a lot of creative growth. It was the same thing when trumpeter Ephraim Owens, trombonist Elizabeth Lea and singer Alecia Chakour joined. We did a live album early on when the band was gaining its stride for the first time, but we felt that we were now head and shoulders above where we were back then.

So we were ready for another live record and, sometime around when we did the Mad Dogs & Englishmen show, we realized that we were ready to make our film as well. [TTB hosted a tribute to Joe Cocker’s classic Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, featuring a number of its alums, at Lockn’ in 2015.] There was a film crew there capturing Leon Russell, Claudia Lennear, Rita Coolidge and everyone. And the directors were so unobtrusive—they just allowed everything to happen, and it felt super comfortable and natural. [The Lockn’ performance was captured by Bob Dylan in the 80s producer Jesse Lauter, who directed Live from the Fox Oakland with Father John Misty collaborator Grant James.] They put together a sizzle reel for a movie of that show based on Leon and the original band and, when we saw that, we realized we probably wanted to reach out to those guys for our film.

These Day and Those Days 

We recorded the West Coast tour this fall, and those guys jumped on board for five or six days. They traveled with the band and we filmed the last two nights in Oakland, Calif. Originally, we thought that the live record and the film would be different entities from different shows, but there was something about that second night in Oakland—the first night was good, but it didn’t have the thing. Sometimes you have those days when you just feel it from the beginning: You’re in a good spot, everybody is flowing and you’re not overthinking things. The first night didn’t really have that, but the second night did, right out of the gate. We started listening to all the live recordings from that tour, and I kept coming back to that second night. There was just something about the continuity of it. And the fact that it was also the night that we had filmed made the whole thing that much better, so the film and the live record ended up rolling into one thing. When I finally watched the finished film, it really felt like being on the road with the band—a very honest depiction of who this group is. I thought everyone’s personalities shined through.

Relearning Every Night

Writing the setlist for TTB is a balancing act. We have an audience where some people will travel from show to show on, say, a West Coast tour—we will see familiar faces—but it is not an audience that fully travels, so we keep track of what we’ve played. If we play Oakland, then I’ll go back to the setlist from the last three or four years and see what we played there. For the most part, there’s a running list of 30-50 tunes that the band’s currently really digging into on tour, and we’ll sprinkle in a song every few nights that we haven’t played yet. If there’s a tune that you’ve never played in a city, then you’ll try to bust it out. Other times, someone will have a notion on the bus, and we’ll work up a new tune on the spot, especially during a multinight run.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: you should play a song if it still inspires you and if you can still reinvent it and nudge it in different directions each night. I’m not of the school that you have to just change a setlist to change it. When I think about my favorite live records—whether it’s the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East or Donnie Hathaway’s Live—these were people that were playing similar material from night to night. And there’s a reason that their shit got so good. They were relearning it every night.

A lot of things came into play for the film: There were certain tunes we wanted to avoid playing the few nights leading up to Oakland so we would hit them fresh, and there were other tunes we’d purposely play to work out the kinks. In some ways, we knew we had the live record in the bag. And if we could beat it, great. If not, then we weren’t overthinking it. But for the film, there were definitely tunes that we were saving and hoping to capture on that second show. When I wrote the setlist for the Oakland shows, I was intentionally thinking about the second show as the one that would be the bulk of the movie. We wanted to focus on tunes of our new album, Let Me Get By, and the things the band had been sinking its teeth into the month or two prior to the show. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”—Susan and our mini-choir were in such a good place with that tune. It was magical.

Sneaky with Cameras 

A lot of concert films were in the mix when we thought about Live from the Fox Oakland. We were certainly thinking about Mad Dogs but, more than anything, it was just the warmth and the feel of the way that film was recorded. [The 1971 Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary helped inspire Tedeschi Trucks Band’s formation.] A lot of the concert footage I’ve seen from the past five to 10 years is too high-definition or too lit up. It just doesn’t feel like an actual show—it feels like a Walmart. You can just tell the musicians aren’t comfortable. I wanted this film to feel like any other night onstage, and the offstage footage to feel comfortable, like you’re on the road. And part of that was that the film crew just lived with us for a bit. You get to the point where you’re not really thinking about it a whole lot, and they’re sneaky with the cameras—you don’t feel like you’re in a reality show. It was more about the conversations, not what we wanted it to look like.

Carrying the Torch 

We are still working on the Mad Dogs film from Lockn’. We’re trying to spread the word and get things financed. That can be a beast, but I would love to get this thing out there. It’s some of the last really strong footage of Leon. From our end, we just think it’s important to get it out there, and we are down to volunteer our involvement. Something certainly happened to the band while we were rehearsing for that show. It gave us a bit of confidence in a way— it’s OK to carry this powerful tradition and powerful music on. It’s appreciated and it’s necessary and it needs to be played with the right care and love. And that’s what this band was tailor-made for. You don’t have to shy away from it.

There was a spirit and energy that came out of doing that show that is very real and that was pivotal for the group. We first really connected with Leon when he opened for us at the Beacon a few years ago. We asked him to do “Space Captain” with us, and his guys were like, “He’s not really into sitting in for the most part.” But when he saw us soundchecking, a light bulb went of and he was into it. From that moment on, he was a great champion of our group. There are songs we throw in now, every few shows, as a remembrance of Leon, Leonard Cohen and B.B. King— these amazing people we were lucky enough to have a real, personal, musical connection with. When those torches are passed to you or left there, you’ve got to pick them up and carry them. From one torch, you can light a lot of others. We feel like it’s part of our job to keep that music fresh in people’s minds.

"Statesboro Blues" 

[Butch Trucks’ suicide] was a shocking, dark situation. You’re just fucking sideswiped—no one saw any of that stuff coming, so it was, and still is, a lot to unpack. My dad, Butch’s brother, was on the road with me when it happened.

He was just shocked and pissed off. You have all these emotions and you just don’t know how to process them. The day after he died, we were at soundcheck in St. Louis and I’m thinking, “How do you process this? You’re gonna run into a thousand people that are gonna want to talk about it or acknowledge it.” I just stood there onstage, having stood underneath Butch and Jaimoe’s two kits for so many years, and looked back at the two drums we have in our band. That’s the first time it really hit me.

Earlier that day, I was thinking of tunes to play for Butch, and I kept coming back to the first tune I ever played with Butch when I was 9 or 10 years old. Gregg Allman, Butch, Warren Haynes and Allen Woody all came out to Tropics International, this little club I was playing in South Florida, and they got up and we did “Statesboro Blues.” Then, when I was 14 or 15, I went out and toured with Gregg in his solo band. Some of that stuff feels like a lifetime ago. It’s hard to imagine it happening ‘cause they were all so crazy in that period. [Laughs.] Not everyone was all adult and clean. So I thought we should open the show with “Statesboro Blues”—the first tune I ever played with him. That’s just the quintessential Butch shuffle. It’s also the first tune on At Fillmore East—the first tune that a lot of people heard of the Allman Brothers— and it seemed right.

It was tough to play that first night without thinking about it too much, and after we played “Statesboro” during soundcheck, I looked up and saw that my dad had split. My first thought was, “Shit, does he think that’s in poor taste?” I didn’t know if I had offended him but, when he heard that music and he heard that sound, that’s the first time that it just came crashing home. It was an emotional gig and, really, it still felt fresh every gig after that, leading up to the Savannah, Ga., show a few days later. It felt appropriate on that run to just acknowledge it every night, and, in Savannah, we started the show the same way. We also did “Liz Reed,” thinking about the other aspect of his playing— the extended part of it. It was cathartic, in a way, but it also was just a nod to what people remember him by.

New Tedeschi Trucks Tracks 

Our next album is still in the writing phase. We went in a few months ago on a break and spent two or three days just writing and getting ideas down, so there’s definitely some stuff there. We’re ready to get back in. We’re planning in the next month or so to spend another three or four days writing tunes. That’ll probably lead very quickly into recording. So we’re on the edge of the active phase of making a record. We just have to find the time between tours.