Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tedeschi Trucks Band Enmore Theatre Sydney 21 April 2011

I guess there are plenty of couples facing down the old problem of dual careers and a growing family, and there are all sorts of workarounds to tackle the issue, but when the dual careers involve reasonably high profile musicians with existing and more or less separate careers the logical solution is to find a way to merge them.

That mightn't have been the actual starting point that led to the formation of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, but I suspect that it was there lurking under the surface as things sorted themselves out. After all it's not as if Derek Trucks doesn't have one eye on the future.

Other people would probably have used the money differently, but Derek put his earnings from two years on the road with Eric Clapton's touring band into the construction of Swamp Raga Studios in the back yard of his Jacksonville home, and while 2009's Already Free was recorded there, one album every couple of years probably doesn't rate as a reasonable return on investment unless you see it as part of a substantial learning curve an artist can afford to indulge himself in.

Trucks is on record as saying that he's learning the tricks of the studio as he goes along, so while the need to combine separate careers mightn't have been the starting point, it may well have been a case of discovering that, Hey, this works pretty well as a couple of tracks were being laid down.

From the initial decision to combine the talents of two artists who are significant attractions in their own rights, of course, the problem is one of differentiating the new lineup from the previous configurations of two separate bands. For a while there it seemed like things were working from a try it and see combination of the old Derek Trucks Band and the former Susan Tedeschi Band, but eventually things had to settle down.

A look at the new look Tedeschi Trucks Band reveals two survivors from the former DTB (keys/flute wiz Kofi Burbridge and vocalist Mike Mattison) and one member of the STB (drummer Tyler Greenwell) along with a couple of not exactly surprising enlistments.

The chief of those is bassist Oteil Burbridge, who, apart from providing a strongly grooved anchor provides a visual counterpoint to the invariably undemonstrative Derek Trucks.

With the lineup sorted it becomes a matter of repertoire, and here again the obvious approach would be to take a bit from here, a bit from there and glue the disparate elements together with some newer material, the sort of thing you could work up as you go along.

That's not, however, the way things have gone here. While there are a couple of covers, notably the old Leon Russell/Joe Cocker Space Captain, which I've personally found almost invariably underwhelming and Sing A Simple Song (which worked a treat for Sly & The Family Stone, roared along nicely for Jeff St John and roared along wonderfully here) most of the rest of the set was new, presumably purpose created material, the best of which was the Mike Mattison penned Midnight In Harlem.

The release of Revelator, the first Tedeschi Trucks Band studio album would clarify a few minor matters like song titles through the rest of the set, but from the opening Bound For Glory, everything thundered through just fine, with repeated solos from Mr Trucks producing roars of approval from a crowd who were, presumably, there with a reasonable expectation of what they were likely to get.

And if they weren't there for Derek and Susan, they'd have had high expectations of the opening set from Robert Randolph & The Family Band, who would, more than likely, have stolen the show from any act short of potential superstar status.

If you'd gone straight from Live at the Wetlands to last year's We Walk This Road you might well have suspected that those long passages of high intensity sacred steel virtuously had been relegated to the background, but that approach to things probably has limited appeal as a commercial recorded proposition anyway.

If you want that lengthy high intensity instrumental thing, of course, once you've got Wetlands you possibly don't need too much more, and if you do there are plenty of live recordings over there at, so there's a definite need to do something different with the studio recordings, which have turned out doing a pretty good job of slotting Randolph into the evolving tradition of Afro-American music.

 In the live setting the opening We Walk This Road, complete with growled Blind Willie Johnson lead in (I'm not a big fan of that sort of thing normally, but in this setting it really works) led off towards the desired direction, maybe not for as long as you'd have preferred but the intensity was there.

The March and Ted's Jam both got airings as the Family Band went through their paces at a thunderous roar.

Which brings me to the one major disappointment of the night, and it affected both bands.

Now when you go to a Robert Randolph or Derek Trucks show, you're almost invariably there for extended high volume guitar workouts, but you do like to hear a bit of light and shade, and you do like to be able to discern what's going on vocally.

Maybe it was the venue, possibly it was my seat in the upper tier, but whatever it was the vocals were more than a tad on the muddy side, which wasn't such a problem during the numbers but definitely became an issue when spoken patter between songs came into play.

But, in the long run, it's about the music rather than the patter, and while the vocals could have been clearer the instrumental work through both sets was quite sublime. It's a high volume, high intensity sublimity, particularly when Derek cuts loose with those swathes of sheeting squalling slide soundaramas that are his trademark, but each and every solo brought roars of approval from a crowd obviously enjoying what they were actually there for.

As for the rest of the band, Susan Tedeschi makes a fine visual focus at the front, that semi-demure school librarian appearance contrasting nicely with a vocal intensity that would have satisfied most Janis Joplin fans.

But where, in Joplin's case, there was a tendency to screech when she headed for the heights, Susan's voice is smoothly melismatic as she heads for the upper register, and, as stated, the intensity when she really gets into it, as she did on That Did It (at least I think it was That Did It, based on a single hearing during the Allman Brothers' Beacon Theatre run last month) contrasts nicely with the librarian next door appearance.

Oteil Burbridge pinned things down nicely on the bass, contributed a vocal on Manic Depression and delivered a visual counterpoint on stage left, while brother Kofi's keyboard contributions, largely delivered from the darkness on the edge of stage left, contributed light and shade, filling in any holes in the sonic spectrum.

Throw in some interesting percussive interplay between drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson and the vocal harmonies from Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers and you’ve got a combo with plenty of sonic variables to play around with. It’s early days yet, but I’m sure there’s a lot to be revealed as things knit together in an outfit that’s stunningly good already and is only going to get better.

Suggestions that Robert Randolph would be joining the band come encore time failed to materialise, though that may have been due to an unannounced or unexpected visit from Warren Haynes, also in the country for Bluesfest, who came out to contribute to an energetic reading of the old Delaney & Bonnie Comin' Home.

With Revelator out in early June, I’m looking forward to further revelations...

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