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Music Review: The Derek Trucks Band – Already Free

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If there was a guitarist who grew up learning guitar at the knee of Son House while listening to Sun Ra records, who toured with Jimi Hendrix, became a star in his own right in the early Seventies and is now putting the finishing touches to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, that guy would probably sound a lot like Derek Trucks. Only thing is, Derek Trucks is still six months shy of 30 and seems to just be getting started.

That's not to say he hasn't done a lot already in his 29 years. He's sat in and toured with his Uncle Butch's band–The Allman Brothers Band–since he was around 10; he became a full-fledged member at 20. And he's played with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh and Stephen Stills. Some of those guys he performed with while still in his teens.

Listening to his distinctive guitar style, it's not hard to figure out why so many of rock's biggest names want to have him around. The owner of a wicked slide approach that's perhaps only surpassed by Ry Cooder, Trucks makes his axe sing with all the soul and urgency of Aretha Franklin.

Trucks' insatiable hunger for making music leads him to several notable sideman projects ever year; last year alone saw him contributing to some great new albums by Scrapomatic, McCoy Tyner, as well as Trucks' wife, Susan Tedeschi. But Trucks main creative outlet has always been his own outfit, The Derek Trucks Band, and has been for the last fifteen years…fully half of his life.

The Derek Trucks Band has been a pretty stable group; Todd Smallie (bass) and Yonrico Scott (drums) have been around since near the beginning, while keyboardist/flautist Kofi Burbridge has played with the band for ten years, now. Percussionist Count M'Butu joined a few years after that, and the current lineup got rounded out by Scrapomatic vocalist Mike Mattison in 2002.

Together, this talented bunch executes Trucks' vast musical vision, which incorporates blues, blues-rock, folk, jazz, soul and East Indian, all while showing a lot of reverence to the most influential practitioners of those musical forms. As Trucks himself has summed up, "Musically, it's always been wide open in this band."

Today marks the sixth studio release by this anything-goes band, Already Free. The main impetus for recording this one is straightforward: Trucks recently completed building his own home studio by hand and with the help of some friends, and quickly thereafter began noodling around in it. From that Jacksonville, Florida incubator came forth plenty of new material for a new album, as well as ideas for some well-chosen covers.

Of the covers, "Sweet Inspiration" works the best. I haven't heard this old Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn composition since Rita Coolidge tackled it in the mid-Seventies, but the DTB gives this forty-year old tune new life by taking it to church, where it belongs, and adds a funky undercurrent. Still, Trucks can't take full credit for resurrecting this forgotten song originally by The Sweet Inspirations; it was Santana who pitched it to him.

Another borrowed tune is Bob Dylan/The Band's "Down In The Flood," already spun off as a single. It's a simple, country blues melody that Mattison sings with Delta authority, and Trucks unloads a powerful slide solo, making this rendition a potent blues rocker that doesn't forget for a single second the traditional blues part of that equation.

Big Maybelle's "I Know" recreates that trademark Allman Brothers shuffle replete with Burbridges' Hammond B-3 Gregg Allman evocations and marries it to a joyful, gospel melody that Mattison sings over with relaxed conviction. The song drives to its finish with Trucks' slide work fading into a distant sound of a sitar, a gentle reminder that this group may share a lot of territory with its leader's "other" band, but maintains it's own identity.

Trucks' own songs (or co-writes) reveal yet another strength of his; he gave these songs hooks but never made them too sleek and instilled in them enough depth to ensure them lasting appeal. Just listen to the driving funk of "Something To Make You Happy," or the anthemic, bluesy old-school soul of "Down Don't Bother Me" for some solid evidence.

PhotobucketMattison's gruff, deeply soulful pipes are a fine fit for the band's gritty personality, but Trucks nonetheless brought in Doyle Bramhall II to take lead vocals on a couple of originals. Bramhall is very much a kindred spirit of Trucks, both having played guitar together behind Clapton and are into much the same kind of roots-based American music forms. Bramhall, though, can also sing, and his vocal abilities work rather well with the funky, mid-tempo rocker "Maybe This Time" and the breezy folk of "Our Love."

And if there's going to be some guest vocals, then it might as well include Trucks' talented spouse, Susan Tedeschi. She gives a committed performance on the acoustic-based number "Back Where I Started." Tedeschi also contributes backing vocals on several other tracks, and I don't have to read any credits to know that; her presence is hard to miss.

The brief album closer, "Already Free," is an appropriate, laid-back wind-down tune with Trucks dubbing together an acoustic slide with a couple of electric ones.

Followers of The Derek Trucks Band will want to know how Already Free stacks up to 2006's Songlines, which I felt is where the band really hit its stride. Songlines remains the fullest expression of the Derek Trucks Band's breathtaking range and abilities. On the other hand, this new one is more tightly focused, yet relaxed.

You could say it's more "down home." Literally.

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  • I have picked up Songlines and set it down on three or four occasions. I’m going to have to get that and this and give them an audition.

  • I love Trucks’ playing. I had a couple of his earlier albums, kept listening hoping for the lightning to strike and it never did. Something didn’t connect. Beautiful playing by Trucks, a great band, and even the vocals didn’t get in the way when they were present, but the circle didn’t come ’round fully and offer up great songs that I wanted to listen to over and over. They just seemed like formless jams. Maybe he’s progressed and grown since those earlier albums. I sure was disappointed after seeing him play on some TV show – the power on display on stage was absolutely not captured in a studio recording.

  • No formless jams at all on this record, Tom. Even Songlines isn’t all the “jammy” although where it is, it’s more interesting. But Already Free is by far the most oriented toward presenting concise, memorable songs. You won’t hear the band stretch out much at all, but Trucks still manages to leave behind some great licks that work well within the songs rather than sounding like excuses to show off. And the singing is great all around; Mattison, who didn’t appear until Songlines, is straight up a top notch vocalist.

  • John

    A great review of this spectacular album.

  • I just saw perform last night in Winnipeg. I may write a review. This was my second time seeing him, this time to a larger audience. He is still quiet and unassuming, barely looking at the audience at all and speaking only to introduce the band members. There was quite a variety in his playing, from various blues, Indian, funk, and spectacular jazz in the form of My Favorite Things. That 20-minute jam was the highlight for me, but for others it was the blistering Keys To The Highway. I had a hell of a good time. See them live if you can.