August 1, 2005
On the endless road that guitarist Derek Trucks has been traveling for some 10 years, the recording studio has been treated as “just another stop on the tour,” said the 26-year-old.It’s hardly a unique sentiment. Groups like the Derek Trucks Band, which make their living, their reputations and the core of their artistry on the stage, often try to re-create the atmosphere of a live performance in the studio. That can mean playing the songs, start to finish, as a band, with little or no post-recording editing or over-dubbing. It means the band can capture the spontaneity and group interaction central to their live shows. But the focus on the performance also overlooks the advantages of a studio – the techniques and sonic wizardry that have made possible albums from the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” to virtually all of hip-hop.The Derek Trucks Band has been, in this regard, the typical incarnation of the road act. The group’s first two albums, a 1997 eponymous debut and “Out of the Madness,” released the following year, show the group’s fresh take on blues and jazz, led by Trucks’ electric slide guitar. They also reflect little imagination of what the studio can be. Trucks’ third studio recording, and his first for the Columbia label, 2002’s “Joyful Noise,” showed some warming to the possibilities of the studio; the album brought in guests like soulman Solomon Burke, Ruben Blades and blueswoman – and Trucks’ wife – Susan Tedeschi. But for most fans, the essential Trucks Band on CD is the band’s most recent release, “Live at the Georgia Theatre,” a document of shows in Athens, Ga.
“They were more just trying to get a great take, a good studio sound, but not much experimentation,” said Trucks of the studio CDs.Trucks, who has absorbed a multitude of styles – Delta blues, the core ’50s jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, ’70s fusion, Pakistani qwaali singing – has extended himself even further. He and his band – drummer Yonrico Scott and bassist Todd Smallie, who have been Trucks’ rhythm section since before the first album, keyboardist-flutist Kofi Burbridge, and the newest member, singer Mike Mattison – spent virtually all of June in a Nashville studio. Joining them was Jay Joyce, who has produced albums by John Hiatt, Lisa Germano and Abra Moore. Trucks had received the master recordings of the album – not yet titled and due for release in early 2006 – two days before I spoke with him by phone during his tour stop in Cincinnati. His initial reaction that the time and effort had been worthwhile.”It’s the first record I’ve done that I’ve listened to just to listen to,” said Trucks, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., whose side job since 1999 has been playing with his uncle Butch Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band. “It’s one of the few times we’ve left the studio feeling energized and pumped about it.”
Trucks was inspired by more than just the desire to break into another musical arena. A veritable student of musical styles, Trucks recently began paying close attention to albums that were not attempts at replicating a stage sound, but used the studio to its fullest: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” and works by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Marvin Gaye.”You could tell these were written in the studio,” said Trucks, who brings his band to Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill to close the Massive Music & Movies weekend with a show on Saturday, Aug. 6. “Rhythmically, you could do things in the studio you couldn’t do live. And that makes you play so differently. You rethink things, think about song forms differently. Before it was all – not technique, but performance, performance, rather than building or creating something.”Trucks used the extended studio time as an opportunity to stretch in other ways. He wrote the lyrics for “I’ll Find My Way,” an Al Green-esque tune that marks Trucks’ first time writing the complete lyrics for a song. Trucks reached into his deep well of interests for the remainder of the album: The songs covered include “Crow Jane” by Delta blues great Skip James; “Blind, Crippled and Crazy” by old blue-eyed soul singer O.V. Wright; a take on Nine Simone’s “I Wish I Knew” and a traditional Pakistani tune. But while the grab bag of styles echoes “Joyful Noise,” most everything else is different from that last studio effort. The new album marks vocalist Mattison’s first time in the studio with the band. And with a hands-on producer in Joyce, Trucks is looking at a new way of making music.
“It’s a much more focused record, sonically and otherwise,” he said. “Jay Joyce is an album guy. The qwaali track, I think, is the longest he ever recorded. We wanted it to be an album with each song built from the very bottom, taking a lot of chances sonically.”Perhaps the ultimate benefit of the studio experience will be how the band’s performances are affected. Making this record has forced Trucks and his mates to think differently about songs, including the repertoire they have built up.”To me, one of the great learning curves is having someone real song-oriented picking apart those tunes, so we could re-examine them,” he said. “It’s amazing how a simple, little thing can make such a big difference.”Some songs we’ve been playing live but never recorded, we’ve reconceived them. You get in a groove of playing 200 days a year and the song gets its own life, and you never rethink it. It was good to reassess everything that we do and really change things up. It definitely brought a new stage for the group, and that’s necessary to keep the band inspired as a group.”
Trucks has found no shortage of ways to keep himself moving forward. He has appeared as a guest on recent albums by drummer Jeff “Apt. Q-258” Sipe and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby, and appears on forthcoming recordings by Tedeschi and dobroist Jerry Douglas. In June, at a 90th birthday celebration for guitar pioneer Les Paul at Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium, Trucks traded licks onstage with an older guard of pickers: Pat Martino, Edgar Winter, José Feliciano, Steve Miller, Bucky Pizzarelli and others. As for recent recordings that have caught his ear, a new favorite is Ray LaMontagne, a young soul singer and guitarist whose debut recording “Trouble” was released last year. “It’s rare for me to listen to a current record,” said Trucks. “But Ray LaMontagne – it’s shocking that he’s a white guy from Vermont.” (Actually, it’s New Hampshire.)Trucks’ CD player has otherwise been busy with albums by Pakistani singer Arbida Parveen and the early New Orleans funk of pianist Eddie Bo and drummer James Black.”But you know, any given day … ,” concludes Trucks.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org