Singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi has experienced quite a ride over the past quarter century, with her 1998 debut album Just Won’t Burn serving as a springboard to a career that dreams are made of. The album went gold (and ultimately platinum, she soon guest-starred and toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and had a harmonic convergence with renowned blues guitarist Derek Trucks. The dynamic duo married, started a family, and then merged their musical talents into the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
With 2023 being the 25th anniversary of her debut, Just Won’t Burn was re-released as an expanded deluxe edition with five unreleased bonus tracks, two new outtakes, and two live versions of album tracks performed by the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Beacon Theater in New York City. PopMatters caught up with Tedeschi toward the end of the year to get the lowdown on her impressive sonic journey.
One of the standout tracks on Just Won’t Burn is “Looking for Answers”, which features a late 1960s/early 1970s vibe but was created in the 1990s. The deluxe version features a live version and a heavier alternate studio arrangement that Susan Tedeschi says was influenced by her affinity for hard rock and grunge.
“Honestly, I just wanted it to be a little harder. I grew up around Aerosmith, and I think they were a good example of someone who was kinda bluesy but took it a little more rock ‘n’ roll. Somebody like the Rolling Stones or the Who, but I also loved Pink Floyd during that time as well as Led Zeppelin,” Tedeschi reflected, citing influences such as Nirvana, the Clash, and Sid Vicious. “A lot of that old British rock was basically reinventing the blues, and I liked how they were doing a spin on it, too. So I dove in, taking their lead in a way, like, ‘Oh, you can really do this; you can reinvent the blues but make it your own, and there’s no rules.’ So that’s kinda where I was at.”
Tedeschi grew up in Massachusetts, Aerosmith’s home state, where band members would patronize her parents’ video store. She seemed destined to mingle with rock stars, with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford hooking her up with tickets when she was 13 to see her first concert on the group’s Get a Grip Tour in 1993.
She says the process is always different when it comes to songwriting and incorporating old-school influences into new songs. “I think it’s just the influence, and you try to reinvent them. Sometimes, the melody and lyrics will just come out, or sometimes, I’ll write it on guitar or piano and then write something to it. Or sometimes it’ll come out all together, and I’ll just be messing around and playing some stuff… It just depends, every time is different,” Tedeschi says.
Just Won’t Burn‘s title track is more of a vintage-sounding tune in the classic blues form, with lyrics that attest to the enduring staying power of the blues. “The song is basically about you’re going through a hard time, and the only thing that doesn’t burn is blues, is playing music, is really what it is,” Tedeschi explains. “So the spin is I’m feeling down, but I’m going to be okay because I have the blues. But I can play the blues, and that will help me get through it.”
Tedeschi spoke to the uplifting spiritual nature of the blues art form. “It’s a healing power, and it brings people together, and it’s one of those things that people just need, and they need something positive.”
Another standout tune from her career where Tedeschi’s voice shines in a way that seems to blend blues power with a mystical vibe is the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Don’t Drift Away”, which some fans at first thought was a lost classic from the 1970s since it wasn’t recorded on a studio album. The song did appear on the band’s Live From the Fox Oakland (recorded in 2016) and turned out to be an original tune written by Trucks and pal Doyle Bramhall II.
“I think Derek and Doyle have that natural vintage vibe feel; they really do. They know how to combine many of those cool classic rock things you love and mix with blues and soul. They both have that a lot and gospel; many of those influences melded together, which is really cool,” Tedeschi says of the song.
Trucks toured with Phil Lesh & Friends in the fall of 1999, introducing him and Tedeschi to the Grateful Dead family. She was invited to sing on tour with the surviving members of the Dead (who called themselves the Other Ones) after they both made guest appearances at Lesh’s New Year’s Eve 2001-2002 show in Oakland.
“Derek and I went out for New Year’s Eve, and I was pregnant with [first child] Charlie, and they invited me to get up and sing a tune. That was the night that they all got back together. Bobby came out and Kreutzmann and Mickey, everybody was there, they all got up and played. And that was the night they asked me to join the band,” Tedeschi reflected fondly. “I was pregnant, so they were asking me, ‘Well, after you have the baby’, because I was having Charlie in March, ‘Do you wanna go on tour with us in October?’ I was okay, and I brought a newborn out on the road. It was a little insane, especially with Bobby Weir trying to give me mushrooms when I was trying to go onstage. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m nursing, I can’t take drugs next time, haha.”
Tedeschi sang with the band on The Other Ones’ fall 2002 tour before returning to her solo career. Trucks still had his own band going, too, in addition to touring as a member of The Allman Brothers Band, so it was still a few more years before the couple would decide the time was right to start touring together as Derek & Susan’s Soul Stew Revival.
“It was hard, we had little ones, and Derek was in so many bands. He had his own band, he was in the Allman Brothers Band since we met, and then he joined Eric [Clapton} in 2006. So in 2006 [into 2007-08], we had two children and four bands, and it was a lot. But we did it, I don’t know, but we did it, we made it work and we survived,” Tedeschi said of their first tour together, which was a smashing success with audiences loving the band like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (“two great tastes that taste great together”.)
Blues rock fans couldn’t get enough, as the success of the part-time project led to the full-time formation of the Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2010. The band has now released five studio albums and several live albums on a creative arc that led to 2022’s ambitious quadruple album I Am the Moon. The conceptual project was based around the mythic 12th-century tale of Layla & Majnun, a poem of Persian origin about star-crossed lovers suggested by Tedeschi Trucks Band singer Mike Mattison in May of 2020 after the band had been forced off the road by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The poem had been the title inspiration for Eric Clapton’s classic 1970 double album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with his band Derek and the Dominoes, which the Tedeschi Trucks Band had performed in its dazzling entirety at the 2019 Lockn’ Festival with guest collaborator Trey Anastasio. I Am the Moon gave the Tedeschi Trucks Band a slew of strong new material, though Tedeschi says it was tricky at times to work into the live repertoire.
“It’s actually really hard. It’s easy to get into a pattern of playing some of the same stuff that you think people wanna hear, and then you try to mix it up. We always do different stuff; it’s never the same, but it’s hard to dive into because some of the songs are hard to pull off live, maybe? And so we don’t play them, and then other ones are more conducive to the 12-piece band live, so you just kinda feel out the venues and different people you’re playing to and what makes sense and all that. But Derek is really our main guy that makes the setlists,” Tedeschi explained of the process.
One of the stand-out new songs with an infectious instant classic vibe was “Sweet Soul Song”, written in tribute to the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s late keyboardist, Kofi Burbridge, who passed away at age 57 in early 2019 after a health setback related to a 2017 heart attack.
“It was one of those we were working on, and we needed lyrics, so we sent [keyboardist] Gabe [Dixon] and Mike upstairs, and Derek and I were finishing a different tune. They came back with all the lyrics and everything, and it sounded great; it just came together kinda effortlessly for those guys. They’re both phenomenal songwriters; Mike and Gabe are both ridiculous, “Tedeschi says, noting that singer Mike Mattison is a Harvard grad with a degree in English.
Drummer Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell contributed to the songwriting as well with a shimmery bluesy gem of his own in “Circles’ Round the Sun”. The song ends with a mystical spoken word soundbite that sounds similar to philosophical musings from Afro-futurist jazz legend Sun Ra. But Tedeschi notes it’s another semi-mythical figure from the South known as St. EOM, aka Eddie Owens Martin, who established a visionary art site in Georgia known as Pasaquan.
“Pasaquan was like this belief that there was this civilization where people all got along,” Tedeschi explained. This inspiring concept was utilized for the title of the epic instrumental tune “Pasaquan” that follows “Circles’ Round the Sun” on I Am the Moon. The 12-minute track feels like a fresh update on the concept of an old-school Allman Brothers jam and became an instant fan favorite on the band’s summer 2022 tour, including incendiary performances in both Berkeley and Sacramento. Fans couldn’t help but notice that Tedeschi would exit the stage to take a little break though.
“It’s more like a moment for the boys just to be able to stretch out and play. I mean, I don’t play on the same level as they do, “the humble Tedeschi says. “I’m good at blues and certain stuff and roots… But when it comes to more jazz and really stretching those guys, I give ’em a little freedom just to go do whatever they wanna do.”
Yet, while the Tedeschi Trucks Band is capable of rocking out at a very high level, many fans have been observed to stay seated in venues that provide seating. This leads to occasional dissension in the audience between the dance crowd and the sit-down crowd, such as at the Sacramento show where a line of dancing fans formed in front of the soundboard, and Tedeschi was moved to let the audience know that it was okay if they wanted to get up and dance.
“It’s like one of those things; you have a lot of different opinions coming at you. But you know, I like the idea of people being able to stand up and dance if they want. Also, if you wanna sit, that’s fine, and that’s great, but don’t get mad at other people for standing; I don’t like that. And if you can’t dance, then get a different type of seat, I don’t know, haha,” Tedeschi says.
The band didn’t tour as heavily in 2023 but played two of their biggest shows ever with their “Garden Parties” in Boston and New York City, featuring guests including Warren Haynes, Lukas Nelson, and Trey Anastasio. The group’s handful of team-ups with Phish’s Anastasio have won raves from fans who love seeing the two elite guitarists together. Trucks made a sensational guest appearance with Phish for an extended jam session at their Vermont flood benefit show in Saratoga, New York, last summer, with Anastasio returning the favor at Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Madison Square Garden show, where jams included an electrifying performance on the Who’s “The Seeker”.
“Actually, it was Mike [Mattison] that suggested ‘The Seeker’, and then Trey was like, ‘Oh, I used to do that song in high school,’ so it kinda all came back full circle. Yeah, Mike and Derek and Trey, so fun!” Regarding the possibility of further collaborations with Anastasio, Tedeschi suggested fans should stay tuned. “You know, I think so. I think Derek and Trey really wanna do some [more] stuff together, so that could be really fun. And we’ll see where that goes, but I definitely see a collaboration there in the future,” Tedeschi says.
As to where the Tedeschi Trucks Band goes next after the ambitious I Am the Moon project, she suggested that it’s just back to the woodshed. “I think we just go back to the drawing board and get in a room and start writing and see where it takes us, and see how we get inspired, who knows?” Tedeschi says. “Who knows ’til we actually sit down and start doing it. But I think we’re all kind of dabbling in writing anyways and working on that stuff all the time anyways…”