Over the course of his first five studio albums, Derek Trucks looked increasingly outside his native United States for inspiration. His early sets concentrated on jazz and blues, working loosely in the idioms of fusion, electric blues, and funk alongside the soulful Southern rock of his most obvious influence, the Allman Brothers Band. (That last is no surprise, since the band’s drummer, Butch Trucks, is his uncle; Derek’s been playing in the group himself since 1999). From 2002’s Joyful Noise on through his last studio effort, 2006’s Songlines, Trucks dug deeply for seeds worldwide, delving into reggae, qawwali, salsa, and Afrobeat alongside his explorations of American roots music. His latest offering, Already Free, returns home but is no less rich for it, drawing from a dizzying variety of regions and styles and stirring them into a seamless and immensely satisfying whole.
The album opens with a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s “Down in the Flood”, cast as a gritty, hard-charging blues that sets the scene for an album’s worth of barnburners. It’s followed by “Something to Make You Happy”, a tune written by Paul Pena (perhaps best known for writing Steve Miller’s hit “Jet Airliner”). Trucks’s cover sears with its energy, featuring high-octane performances from vocalist Mike Mattison and keyboardist Kofi Burbridge. Things ratchet down a notch in intensity, but not in quality, for the next two tracks: Doyle Bramhall II pays a visit for the leisurely soul number “Maybe This Time”, and the Robert Randolph-esque gospel serenade “Sweet Inspiration” adds a curious touch of bongo to the heavy doses of Hammond organ, backing choir, and, of course, slide guitar.
It’s back to the firehouse for “Don’t Miss Me”, a stomping, mid-paced Trucks original that sounds like it’s been passed down for generations, from Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy to Eric Gales. Topping it all off is Trucks’s murderous slide work, which is yet more impressive on the next track, the shuffling boogie “Get What You Deserve”. Halfway through the album, Trucks is already blowing the doors off of the house of blues, proving himself possibly the best blues guitarist of his era. Much of Already Free‘s first half has the feel of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s first two albums, particularly as Mattison’s voice has a passing resemblance to Corey Sterling, who sang on Shepherd’s debut,
Ledbetter Heights. But as top-notch a player as Shepherd was (and is), a significant portion of his work gives the appearance of being simply an excuse to solo, with a two-minute jam thrown in between 12-bar choruses. Trucks melds Shepherd’s ferocity with Keb’Mo’s knack for songwriting, along with his uncle’s band’s fullness of sound and complexity of improvisation (among several members, not just the lead instrument). The result is some of the overall highest quality blues rock anyone’s been making in decades.
Trucks downshifts again for “Our Love”, a piano and acoustic guitar-driven ballad which also features contributions from Doyle Bramhall II. A classic Austin-sound number, “Our Love” would have fit impeccably on a Storyville record or on the lone LP by Bramhall’s erstwhile supergroup, Arc Angels, but it’s just as much at home here in Trucks’s synthesis of all things Americana. Following this is the sanctified soul number “Down Don’t Bother Me”, whose uplifting chorus echoes Joe Cocker’s definitive reshaping of Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”; in an album of standouts, this slow-burning track is one of the absolute best. Trucks channels Otis Redding on “Days Is Almost Gone”, which, like Redding’s gem “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, starts off a little unsure of itself but gains its confidence, and then some, with an infusion of heavy gospel towards its end.
Trucks’s wife Susan Tedeschi guests on lead vocals for “Back Where I Started”, a subdued love song in which Tedeschi balances her range artfully between Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin. As it fades into “I Know”, it also introduces the only real hint of non-Western playing on the album when Trucks’s sarod (an Indian classical instrument similar in sound to a sitar) makes a brief appearance. “I Know” gets carried back into the heartland soon enough, fleshing out as a fat Stax tribute with prominent horns and wonderful dollops of electric organ. The album closes with the title track, a brief, scratchy number whose lead melody recalls the old spiritual “Blood on That Rock”. It’s a little disorganized, and feels like somewhat of a throwaway number, especially since the production is intentionally more lo-fi than the rest of the album. Perhaps not the best track to name the album after, but after 53 minutes of top-shelf heat, who’s to complain?
Six albums in and with a cartload of accolades to his name, Trucks doesn’t need to prove that he’s one of the most talented guitarists alive, and yet Already Free is about as far from resting on his laurels as he can get. Forget the blues; forget genre, at all — Trucks and his crack band are serving up some of the best American music to be had in a fragmented, subgenre-obsessed popular music world. By tapping into the limitless well of America’s musical traditions, Trucks has brought forth one of 2009’s first true gems and his best effort to date.