Derek Trucks has to be one of the luckiest men alive. The 29-year-old slide guitar prodigy was born into one of the first families of rock ‘n’ roll as the nephew of Butch Trucks, drummer in the Allman Brothers Band. Trucks occasionally played with the Allmans as a teen, and at the tender age of 20 he became a regular member of the band as well as touring with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. This is, of course, in addition to leading the Derek Trucks Band.
But even those blessed with the skills to make a career as a touring rock musician face another obstacle—life on the road, which has led to the disintegration of many a musician’s marriage. The ultimate answer to that dilemma would be to find a soul mate who is also an accomplished musician that you could play and tour with together. This is where Trucks hit life’s jackpot again with his 2001 marriage to Susan Tedeschi, an accomplished blues singer and guitarist in her own right. Still, the duo hadn’t hit the road in a collaborative effort until last year when they blended elements of their respective bands to create the Soul Stew Revival for an acclaimed summer tour.
Trucks and Tedeschi are on the road together again this summer and have even hinted in at least one interview that the Soul Stew collaboration may become their career focus. Music fans will be the ones hitting the jackpot if that turns out to be true. Like Reese’s chocolate covered peanut butter cups, Trucks’ guitar skills and Tedeschi’s soul-stirring vocals are two great tastes that go even better together.
But what happens when you take a blues rock band and present them in a jazz format? This was the hand the band was dealt when they were booked into the Masonic Auditorium for a show billed as part of the SFJazz summer season. The band comes out with high energy and the new song “People” has a great uplifting vibe as Tedeschi hits the mark early with some socially conscious vocals. But the combination of the SFJazz label and an upscale venue with seats seems to create a herd mentality wherein the audience will not be moved to get up and groove.
A seated audience negates much of the band-crowd interaction that is a well-documented factor in the live shows of improvisation-oriented bands like the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead. So the Soul Stew Revival is faced with a challenge here as they are unable to feed off the crowd’s energy like they would at most shows. After a bluesy number where Tedeschi proves she can play some lead guitar too, the band seems out to test whether there’s anything that can get the crowd up by throwing down their high-octane cover of Eric Clapton’s “Anyday”.
Trucks did a world tour with Clapton and his band a couple of years ago, appropriate since Duane Allman was a collaborator of Clapton’s on the classic 1970 Derek & the Dominoes project. The classic tune from that project had the crowd going bonkers when the Soul Stew Revival played it in the encore slot at the Fillmore last year. Here, the audience does seem enraptured, but remains seated. Tedeschi and Mike Mattison offer gorgeous harmony vocals, while the 11-piece ensemble lays down a smoking groove that features a sizzling guitar solo from Trucks. The crowd is moved to rise for a standing ovation at the end of the song, but takes their seats again just as quickly. It’s just one of those venues.
Tedeschi continues to dazzle on a slow blues anti-war tune where she sings, “Bring those soldiers back home / What are they fighting for / It’s not our war” and “Things can get better / If we all get together.” Trucks sits back to let her take another solo and she delivers with some Hendrix-like licks that recall his playing on songs like “Wind Cries Mary” and “Angel”. The three-piece horn section finally gets turned up during “Sweet Inspiration” and their lines blend beautifully with the harmonies handed out by Tedeschi and Mattison. It’s still hard to hear percussionist Count M’Butu though, and the overall sound isn’t quite as rich as one might hope. The venue doesn’t host many rock shows and this is probably why.
Trucks seems to be laying back a bit more than usual, as if content to let this be more of a Susan night. The sit-down vibe also seems to call for a greater focus on the songs rather than incendiary guitar jams. But that changes momentarily during “Hercules” when legendary guitarist Carlos Santana suddenly appears onstage. The crowd recognizes him immediately as a palpable buzz rises up. Carlos dons a guitar but waits out a tasty sax solo before he and Trucks start to engage. The band builds up the jam with a deep groove, as Santana turns toward the two drummers and directs rhythmic guitar blasts right at each of them, as if transferring some sort of shamanic energy directly into the souls of Yonrico Scott and the 19-year-old Duane Trucks. Duane’s eyes light up during the exchange and the music starts to play the band.
Santana and Derek Trucks then begin to exchange licks in a huge jam that wows the crowd (but still doesn’t lift them from their seats). The only drawback is the sound as Santana’s legendary sweet tone is a bit tinny here. Whether he didn’t bring his own gear or the acoustics of the venue are responsible, it’s a shame that the sound is below par. But the master and the young gun are undeterred. They build the jam up, continuing to swap hot licks and then bring it back down to a simmering outro as the crowd begins to clap in unison. They bring it back up one more time before closing it out, drawing a huge standing ovation as Santana exits the stage.
The band takes the momentum into Clapton’s “Tell the Truth”, another smoking Derek & the Dominoes classic. This is followed by a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Sugar”, which provides an infectious groove for Tedeschi’s soul-diva side to shine. From there it’s one hot blues rocker after another, with Tedeschi’s sultry voice and Trucks’ stellar slide guitar combining to create some of the most compelling and authentic blues flavor in live music today. The group concludes the evening with a cover of The Band’s classic “The Weight”, with Tedeschi altering the song’s vocal melody into a bluesier arrangement.
The Soul Stew Revival is still just getting going, yet to even record an album. But the band’s future is as bright as can be, enabling the music world to rest assured that there’s a new generation ready and able to continue down the path blazed by legends like Clapton, Santana, and the Allmans. A few years down the road it will probably be Trucks and Tedeschi sitting in with the next generation of young guns.