Inside the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Traveling Circus

YOU MAY RECOGNIZE A FAMILIAR ROCK-AND-SOUL recipe when listening to the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
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YOU MAY RECOGNIZE A FAMILIAR ROCK-AND-SOUL recipe when listening to the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Eleven members strong, the adroit TTB owes a debt of gratitude to feverish and finely tuned Southern-style musical revues from the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker’s rollicking live band.

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Susan Tedeschi first met Derek Trucks in 1999, when she was opening for the Allman Brothers Band. It took the dynamic pair only two years to marry, but a decade to form a musical alliance. Their first project together, the Soul Stew Revival, “was very much throw and go, and just a chance to feel things out,” explains Trucks. When they launched TTB, however, the couple emphasized preparation and organization as they attempted to harness the power of a large band. “It took until right around the time we made our new record for it to finally feel like everybody was in lockstep,” he adds.

That new record, Made Up Mind [Sony], showcases an impressive stylistic range, spanning Eastern-tinged folk to gospel-style rave-ups to bright soul pop to funky R&B. Recorded at the couple’s own Swamp Raga Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, by the engineering team of Jim Scott and Bobby Tis, with songwriting contributions from several close friends, the album is linked to the band’s 2011 debut by those common threads—but it represents an expansion of TTB’s musical vision and execution.

How much of a factor were Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker when you started TTB?

TRUCKS: The concept behind those bands definitely played a role. Susan and I were thinking about a bigger band as we were talking about putting a group together, and about that same time we saw the Mad Dogs and Englishmen concert footage. We thought, “That looks like a lot of f**kin’ fun. And if we’re going to put a big band together and just head out on the road like a traveling circus, now’s the time to do it, because we’re still young enough that we can probably handle it.”

What is the biggest challenge of being onstage with 11 musicians?

TEDESCHI: Volume. Eleven musicians make a lot of sound, but, fortunately, everybody’s really good at being aware of what the others are doing and not playing too loudly.

On the plus side, the band’s size allows for an eclectic mix of cover songs.

TRUCKS: Yeah. There aren’t many bands out there currently that could pull off a song like George Harrison’s “Wah Wah,” or some of the Sly & the Family Stone stuff. In those cases you kind of owe it to the song to be able to cover all the parts and do it right.

When you do “Wade in the Water,” you play some Pops Staples licks. How did you pick up on that?

TRUCKS: He’s really an unsung hero. When you listen to those old Staples Singers recordings, the sound of Pops’ voice and what he’s playing on the guitar are really distinctive. So, when we decided to do “Wade in the Water,” I said I’ve got to at least attempt to cop what he’s doing and get a little of his sound in there.

Pops’ licks sound simple, but they’re actually fairly intricate.

TRUCKS: Oh yeah, it’s deceptive, man. A lot of people think they know how to play stuff by members of the old guard like Pops, but they almost always play it wrong. Those guys did a lot of subtle things, which are easy to gloss over—but those are the things that really make the music go.

What makes what Pops is playing so difficult to replicate?

TRUCKS: When you first hear his playing, you hear the surface stuff. You hear the phrasing. But he was a Delta blues guy—he grew up listening to Charley Patton and Son House and Robert Johnson. He knew that music and could play it, and viewed from that angle you get a different perspective on what he’s doing. You hear the layers underneath it a little differently. You hear the implied melodies that you faintly know from other things. To really understand players like that, you have to understand what they were listening to.

The first time I heard Duane Allman play it was a revelation. It sounded like this thing that had just appeared fully formed. But then when I listened to guys like Elmore James and Little Walter, it became obvious that they had influenced him, and I began to better understand where certain things had come from.

Why did you gravitate to slide?

TRUCKS: I think it was Duane and Elmore. Those are the guys I was really listening to at the time. And just picking up a slide—it immediately made more sense to me than playing straight, as far as improvising and hearing those melodies went.

How has your slide playing developed with the bigger band?

TRUCKS: I’m always trying to improve my intonation and to get everything to sound cleaner and more precise, but in this band I’ve also tried to be more patient and concise. For example, if I take a solo that is one verse long in the middle of a song, I’ll try to make it sound like an extension of the song rather than a guitar solo—almost like a written part—even though I’m improvising something new every night.

What guitars are you playing live?

TEDESCHI: There are several, but I’m mostly playing my ’93 Fender American Standard Stratocaster, and Derek mostly plays his ’61 Gibson SG reissue.

You put a lot of thought into crafting your albums in terms of songwriting and sequencing and instrumentation.

TRUCKS: I try to make records that feel like the ’60s and ’70s records that I loved to listen to. Records like Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Bobby Bland’s Dreamer, and Bob Marley’s Kaya aren’t necessarily thematic—but when you listen to them you feel like you’re going on a trip. They just have a sound and a feel. Eat a Peach is that way for me, too.

Did you use any unusual gear while recording Made Up Mind?

TRUCKS: I used a Silvertone amp through a vintage Leslie guitar cabinet for a short section on “Whiskey Legs.”

And I played through an old Ampeg B-12 bass amp on a few of the tracks, which was a way to get a really aggressive sound without the low end getting flabby and dying out. We also found one of Duane’s 50-watt Marshall bass amps, which I played through on “Idle Wind.” I had never plugged it in and recorded it before.

Additionally, we used a couple of acoustic guitars with lots of personality. One was a late-’20s or early-’30s Gibson L-00, and the other was a 1932 Martin 0-17H. The “H” stands for Hawaiian, because it originally had a high nut and recessed frets, but somewhere along the way someone did a really nice conversion job.

What are a few prized guitars that never make it out of your home studio?

TEDESCHI: I have a late-’70 or early-’71 Martin 00-18 that was my very first guitar that my dad gave me. Another of my favorite guitars from when I first started playing was a blond dot-neck Gibson ES-335 reissue, and Derek actually bought me a real blond dot-neck 335 from 1960, which I’m petrified to take on the road. He also bought me my birth-year Strat, a 1970, that I have been playing a lot onstage lately.

TRUCKS: For me, a couple would be my ’65 Gibson Firebird and Bukka White’s National.

How would you describe the personality of your studio?

TEDESCHI: There’s a lot of wood and carpet, so the ambient sound is very warm. And when everyone is playing, the sound really does come together into a complete whole. More than anything, though, the studio is great because of our vintage Neve 8048 console. It was formerly used at Ray Davies’ Konk Studios in London, and has a very organic sound. And we also recently got a Studer 1/2" tape machine to mix down to, and we used that on the last album, which added quite a bit.

TRUCKS: The studio is a big part of who we are and what we do now, so it’s really more than just a studio. It’s an extension of the music we make.