The long and twisting story of the Allman Brothers Band – one of rock’s enduring jam acts for decades – has (seemingly) come to its conclusion, and Derek Trucks had a first-hand view of the writing of its final pages.
Considered one of the best living guitarists, Trucks finished his 15-year run with the Allman Brothers during its final residency at the Beacon Theater in New York at the end of October, bringing closure to the band’s 45 years of touring and performing. The six nights of shows at the Beacon featured hours-long sets of the band’s most lasting songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Jessica” and “Mountain Jam.”
Noticeably missing from the musical celebration was Allman Brothers’ founding guitarist Dickey Betts, who penned classics like “Blue Sky” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” He also famously feuded with the band’s co-founder Gregg Allman and other members, being forced out of the band in 2000.
Betts stirred up controversy in an article that ran in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at the end of October, making the statement, “It’s almost like the Allman Brothers turned into an Allman Brothers tribute band” after he left. But many longtime Allman Brothers fans have praised its final incarnation as featuring one of its strongest lineups since 1969, including Trucks and Warren Haynes on guitar, along with other founding members Gregg Allman on keys and drummers Butch Trucks (Trucks’ uncle) and Jaimoe Johanson. Trucks joined the band in 1999 alongside Betts, and he says the two remain friends to this day despite the inter-band arguments, even inviting him to play at his Florida-based Sunshine Music & Blues Festival in January, along with Grace Potter, Los Lobos and the Rebirth Brass Band.
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With the final run of the Allman Brothers behind him (while ongoing discussions of possibly bringing it back in some form continue), Trucks says he’s now focused on moving forward with his own project – the Grammy Award-winning 11-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band. The members have already started recording songs for a follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2013 release Made Up Mind, and they’re ready to get back on the road with their live show, incorporating new elements like an acoustic set and several new songs.
Trucks says he’s also excited to be spending more time with his wife and fellow bandmate, Susan Tedeschi, along with their two children – Charlie, 12, and Sophia, 10.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band opens a mini-musical residency tonight with a three-show stand at the Keswick Theater – featuring up-and-coming and established acts like New York-based Afro-Cuban band the Pedrito Martinez Group and Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls – followed by a performance at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College next week.
We caught up with Trucks last month at his home in Jacksonville where he discussed Betts’ comments, coming up with new songs and his first Allman Brothers show.
Fly Magazine: How does it feel to be off the road for a little bit after spending most of 2014 touring?
Derek Trucks: It’s good. It’s been a long, crazy, intense year. It’s not often when I’m on the road and I’m feeling exhausted because usually I can go forever [laughs]. But coming straight off the Allman Brothers’ final shows, it was a lot going on. So I was excited to get home for this little break. With two kids, if you’re gone for two or three weeks, once you hit home it doesn’t slow down [laughs]. After about a week, I’m like, “I need to get back on the road to get some rest.” It’s crazy around here – baseball games and school functions.
FM: Do you ever take your kids on the road when you’re touring?
DT: They travel quite a bit with us. They’re in public school, so we really can’t yank them out during the school year too much. But they’re pretty much out with us all summer, so they’re well traveled.
FM: Any plans in the future to start a family band with your kids?
DT: [laughs] We’ll see, we’ll see. They’re showing a little bit of interest, but we’ll wait.
FM: Does your son play guitar?
DT: Not much. He plays a little bit, but he’s in full baseball mode and the full sports mode. I’m going to let him do that as long as he feels it. He’s a good little golfer, too, so that’s fun.
FM: How does 2014 rank to other years of your musical career in terms of its intensity – playing the final Allman Brothers Band shows, touring with Tedeschi Trucks Band and other projects you took on?
DT: It’s certainly one of the busiest, most intense years I’ve ever had. I’ve had years where I’ve played more gigs and maybe juggled a little bit more, but there’s something about the finality of the Allman Brothers and the amount of twists and turns that the whole saga has taken over the last year [laughs]. It’s been pretty exhausting – a lot to keep up with. And I had my mind made up for quite a while, so when everything around you is shifting and taking on a different form and you’re trying to stay steady, you kind of get bounced around a little bit. You’re like, “I’m right here where I was to begin with. You guys sort it out, but I’m sticking to the plan.” There was a lot of that this year. And in terms of travel, it was a really crazy year for our band. We did Japan, India, Bahrain, two trips in Europe where we came home and went back over. We logged a lot of miles and a lot of miles on the bus in the States. It was a busy year, and when I think back on it, it was a little exhausting. But it’s been good. We’ve made a lot of musical headway with the group, and we started writing. We had about a four or five day session in the studio where we were writing as a band, and it was getting really good. Everyone’s excited about all of those changes, so it’s a good spot. I’m excited for this last tour of the year, because I think everyone’s looking forward to getting together and thinking about the year, laying it down and starting fresh the next year maybe with another record. With the Allman Brothers behind me, it’s kind of a transitional time, but I know the band’s excited.
FM: When did the recording session take place with the new Tedeschi Trucks Band songs?
DT: Right before our last tour and right before I left for the Allman Brothers run. It seems like a year ago, but it was a month and a half ago [laughs]. We had the band down for four days before we started the last run. It was pretty amazing how good it felt to write with the group. I had Mike Mattison down one or two days early, and we started and piled up a bunch of ideas. Then the core of the band showed up – the rhythm section – and it took off pretty quickly. We started playing some of the new tunes on the last run – songs that had been written a few days beforehand. It’s always a good sign when you can open a show with a song that’s a week old and people up front are pretending to sing like they know it [laughs]. That was interesting. I was like, “It feels like you know it, but I’m pretty sure you don’t.”
FM: What are some of the themes or ideas of songs you’ve been tooling around with or have popped in your head lately?
DT: They can come from anywhere. I remember I was talking to my daughter, and she was singing a tune. I asked her if she knew who Dolly Parton was and told her how she was a great songwriter. There’s her song “Jolene,” which is a really cool tune. I played it for her with this old footage of her doing it in the ’60s, and my daughter fell in love with it – she loved the tune. There’s a really cool guitar line in it, and I picked up an acoustic and started fumbling through it. That sparked a song idea, so sometimes it’s totally out of the blue. You’re trying to play a song for your kids, and you’re immediately like, “Wait, I have a song idea.” I’m noticing with this band that everyone will show up at sound check. Everyone straggles in – it’s 11 people. Sometimes it will be Kofi [Burbridge] on keys, the drummers will be there, Tim [Lefebvre] will be playing bass, and somebody will start playing something without thinking – totally out of nowhere. Some of those ideas are really good, and I’ve started recording them. I’ll tell other people in the group, “If you hear something, record it because it’s gone if you don’t.” So we’ve started digging in to some of those recordings we’ve compiled over the course of this year, and there’s some really nice stuff. A lot of times that will be the start of a tune – just a little B3 riff that happened six months ago at who knows where [laughs]. Two or three of those recordings can spawn tunes, and some of them are more traditional where you have a lyric in your head and you start writing words first. With this band, I like that it’s open to any of that.
“Dickey Betts kept the band alive after Duane passed, there’s no two-ways about it. I think there had to be a huge part of him that felt when he exited, that it would fold up shop in about six months. I think the fact that it didn’t had to sting a little bit.” – Derek Trucks
FM: So there’s a true collaborative process going on in the songwriting for Tedeschi Trucks Band?
DT: Absolutely, and we’re starting to figure out the right amount of people in the room to do that and everybody’s dynamic. Some people have ideas constantly, which can be good or it can be a little overwhelming. Everybody’s figuring out that there’s a time and place to try and change gears and shift the direction. The last session was really great. It felt seamless, and everybody left feeling energized, and we had a pile of tunes, so that’s always nice.
FM: I can’t imagine the collaborative process with 11 people in a band.
DT: [laughs] It’s a lot.
FM: How did the acoustic set for the Tedeschi Trucks Band shows take shape?
DT: A producer who’s doing a tribute record to Blind Willie Johnson asked me and Susan to help. We were looking for tunes, and we found this tune called “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” We had some of the guys down in the studio, just picked up acoustic guitars and started playing it. The background singers and Susan just went straight old gospel on it, and it was really amazing – an amazing sound hearing those voices. And then we got everybody in the band in the room to clap and make it a vibe. We did the recording in 30 or 40 minutes, and it felt really legit [laughs]. It sounded great and felt right. The light bulb kind of went off. We had been talking about doing a sit-down set conceptually, but when that happened, we were like, “This is really good.” Hearing just an acoustic guitar with three voices locked in was a pretty amazing sound, so that was kind of the genesis of it. Then we got an offer to do an acoustic set at Lockn’ [Music Festival], so we worked up about an hour of acoustic material. It was refreshing and fun to do it, so we started popping two, three or four songs into the middle of our show. It’s a nice palate cleanser, too. With an 11-piece band, it’s a lot of sound coming off stage, so it’s nice in the middle of the show to bring it back and rest everybody’s ears a little bit for the onslaught in the second half of the set [laughs].
FM: What’s it like for you to be asked to be a part of some of those special musical moments at some of the festivals like the acoustic set at Lockn’ or the SuperJam at Bonnaroo this year?
DT: It’s great. Oftentimes it’s a lot of work for one set. For the SuperJam, me and Eric Krasno and Paul Peck who was the guy from the festival who helped to coordinate everything. There were talks for months and months, reaching out to tons of people and trying to get everyone’s schedules connected. You’re in the middle of other tours, and this thing’s always in the back of your head. It can be a little intense, but it’s good. Then you do a day and a half of rehearsal, and a lot of times the rehearsals are better than the shows. It’s the discovery of it all and it’s just working. You’re not having to worry about the sound on stage and all the other shit [laughs]. Sometimes the magic is the rehearsal. There were a few of the tunes for the SuperJam where the rehearsal was just transcendent. The show was good, but you just have that feeling in rehearsal, “I wish everybody was in here now.” The thing I like about it is it forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to try other things, and it forces you to focus on different things. And it always adds back to your own project. As soon as we finished the SuperJam, there are three, four or five tunes the band learns that you end up incorporating into your own show. In the end, it’s always a positive – at least so far [laughs].
FM: You’re doing a three-day residency at the Keswick Theater. What’s it like to be able to have those types of residencies where you’re introducing musicians who may not have a wide audience like Pedrito Martinez Group?
DT: We started doing residencies at the Beacon a handful of years ago, and it started working there. It’s so much fun to do that. Again, it’s kind of like doing the festival oddball sets. When you do multiple shows in one place, it forces you to add material and change it up. We’ve always tried to be really conscious of what groups to highlight. We’re fortunate to have quality bands playing and opening, and you want to introduce people to things you believe in. When I’m in New York and there’s a day off and Pedrito’s playing Guantanamera or this new club he’s playing now – his weekly gig – we would go to see him. It’s nice to be able to expose your audience to world-class musicians. This last Beacon run was great. We had the Hard Working Americans, which was my little brother [Duane] playing with Dave Schools – another band you can get behind. Then you end up collaborating with these artists, too.
FM: Is that the same concept you’ve taken with your Sunshine Music & Blues Festival in Florida?
DT: Yea. In that one, we realized pretty early on that if we only put on bands that I like and it was my brainchild, there would probably be 40 people at the show [laughs]. So you mix it up a little bit. You have a very small wish list of the people I would really love to have on it, and then we go down with a bunch of other acts where it seems like good synergy between the bands and people you know and like – you fill it in that way. I realize that my tastes can be pretty eclectic, and when a promoter’s trying to get more than a few hundred people out, you’ve got to have some names on there, apparently [laughs]. There are acts sprinkled throughout the day of people we would gladly pay to go watch – like having The Wood Brothers out or Jimmy Herring’s band. Having Dickey [Betts] out was that way, too. It’s nice having Dickey Betts back out.
FM: Have you talked to Dickey since he made the comments about the Allman Brothers’ final shows?
DT: I haven’t talked to him since that went down – no. But I fully understand where that would come from. I understand the frustration with that whole drama. I allow everyone to get whatever they need to off their chest – it’s fine [laughs]. No harm, no foul from this end. I get it. I mean, [Dickey] kept the band alive after Duane passed, there’s no two-ways about it. And he wrote some of the most lasting tunes in that whole catalogue and is a massive part of the band. I think there had to be a huge part of him that felt when he exited, that it would fold up shop in about six months. I think the fact that it didn’t had to sting a little bit. There’s a lot of high emotions running in that camp – especially the original members – so I don’t take any offense to that stuff.
FM: I always thought the fact the band could continue for so long was not only a testament to Duane’s legacy, but also Dickey’s legacy in the Allman Brothers.
DT: Absolutely. In some ways, it’s like the Count Basie or Duke Ellington orchestra. Once that music is out there and thrown into motion, it can kind of roll forever [laughs]. It’s a pretty amazing thing, and I think it’s hard for everyone involved to understand that it’s bigger than everybody individually. I know Gregg has to grapple with that, and I know all the original members must feel that way. For me, it was never like that because you know pretty clearly when your first gig is 30 years into the band, I didn’t do it. I never had to grapple with that. I think for some of the other guys, maybe it gets in there that, “This is my thing,” instead of being a collective. Those are hard things to unlearn or unfeel when that’s your perspective on it. Since I joined the band, Dickey was there, and we obviously did shows at great heights once Dickey left. We did some shows when Butch [Trucks] was sick, and my brother filled in, and those shows were amazing. We did shows without Jaimoe [Johanson], we did shows without Warren [Haynes], we did shows without Gregg. There were shows they did without me. It was a rotating cast, and at least the shows that I was there for when it rotated – usually the energy of other people coming in and getting to play that music kept it really strong. The spirit felt right. It’s an amazing collection of tunes, and the mentality of that music can roll on its own.
FM: How old were you when you went to your first Allman Brothers’ show?
DT: I was really young – maybe 5 or 6. I think my parents drove me down to Gainesville, and it was some show in the mid- or late-‘80s that they did. I remember bits and pieces of that. But at 9 years old, I remember seeing them after they reformed. They played Jacksonville and Atlanta, and I ended up sitting in with them in Jacksonville. That was the first time I played with them.