Photo: Shervin Lainez / Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band Lifts the Bay Area Up into the Clouds Again

The blend of diverse original material with a wide-ranging array of superb blues and classic rock covers is part of what makes the Tedeschi Trucks Band a leading torch carrier for the blues tradition, ever paying tribute to the past while continuing to move the medium forward.

It’s a beautiful spring evening as the Tedeschi Trucks Band rolls back into familiar territory on this second Friday of May for another two-night stand at the resplendent Fox Theater in uptown Oakland. The renowned blues-rock ensemble recorded their September 2016 visit for what became a Grammy-nominated live album, then returned in November 2017 for another stellar two-night run to conclude that year’s fall tour. They’re mixing it up this time by using the Fox as a launch pad to open a two-week west coast run to close out their spring tour and uptown is buzzing with anticipation.

Many fans are lining up early to get in and get close, while others are taking their time to enjoy the area’s many culinary delights and craft beer and cocktail options. This part of uptown Oakland has surpassed the offerings around the Warfield Theater in San Francisco over the past decade, making the Fox a coveted tour stop on any fan’s wish list. It’s also the tenth year on the road for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, since slide guitar maestro Derek Trucks and enchanting blues siren Susan Tedeschi decided to extend their marriage into their music too.

The band has a strong new album out with 2019’s Signs, but it hasn’t been all peaches and cream this year, with longtime keyboardist Kofi Burbridge passing away after a struggle with cardiac problems and with bassist Tim Lefebvre also departing the band. But the show must go on, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band has rebounded with new members to keep their blues-rock train rolling, now touring with no opening act and delivering two full sets of blues power per night.

The title track of the new album makes a vibrant opener with Tedeschi getting her mojo working early on with the hard-edged rocker. The mojo deepens on the bluesy funk of “High and Mighty” from the band’s 2019 EP of the same name (released for Record Store Day), featuring what a choice cut that somehow didn’t make it onto Signs. New bassist Brandon Boone proves his mettle early on here, laying down a tasty groove that helps the band ignite. Hearing Tedeschi sing her heart out on melancholy numbers like “When Will I Begin” feels almost like being in a church or sonic temple of some sort, particularly with the gospel-tinged backing vocals from the trio of Alecia Chakour, Mark Rivers and Mike Mattison.

Derek is often content to lay back and play for the song and why not when wife Susan is one of the best singers in the world, and you’ve put together a big band like this to create beautifully bluesy sonic landscapes on every tune. He makes his guitar sing on the solo here, and everyone knows he can catch lightning in a bottle at any given time. The set surges with the romantic soul-rocker “Part of Me”, easily one of the most infectious tunes in the Tedeschi Trucks Band catalog. The harmony backing vocals behind Tedeschi elevate the song higher over a great groove that Trucks and Boone conjure with drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson. The energy builds with saxman Kebbi Williams throwing down a great solo to spark the collective vibe and the Tedeschi Trucks Band once again holds the Fox in the palm of their hands as they lift the audience higher.

It sure doesn’t feel like a tour opener where a band needs to get the kinks worked out because this group is firing on all cylinders. Trucks leads the band into deep blues mode with a blazing solo on “Down in the Flood”, before shifting gears back into the funky groove zone on “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”. Tedeschi stars again on “Laugh About It” as she leads the audience with her patented soul singing for collective catharsis, imploring listeners to rise from the scene of injustice and to raise their hands in empowering unity. Trucks rips hot melty riffage on the jam here, adding even greater impact to the song’s heartfelt message.

A cover of Joe Tex’s “Show Me” features the band in what feels like Blues Brothers revival mode for an uplifting rhythm & blues tune that ignites the Fox with a sensational soul power. The crowd is clapping from the getgo in unison with the beat as the band comes together for a dynamic performance to close out the set that could make Jake Blues do cartwheels if he were present. The interactions between the guitars, vocalists and horn section with trumpeter Ephraim Owens and trombonist Elizabeth Lea complimenting Kebbi Williams is an R&B master class that leaves the audience elated.

The second set is a triumph as Tedeschi busts out a rare version of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” to open the set in a meditative mood before the band cranks up the blues power with a smashing trifecta of “Keep on Growing”, “Midnight in Harlem”, and “Key to the Highway”. The electrifying vibe of “Keep on Growing” sends a spark through the theater, setting the stage for the mystic power of “Midnight in Harlem”. The Mattison number has become one of the great jams of the 21st century, as Trucks leads the band in building a jazzy blues simmer into a sonic wave of vibrational melodic healing that never fails to please.

The song has become akin to a sacred blues rock hymn, with Tedeschi testifying on a spiritual sermon that always hits deep, emoting on the chorus here to conjure a big response from the congregation. The band rides that wave deep into the night on one of those magical grooves where strangers are dancing with strangers in the aisles as the jam peaks because it feels so good (and since there’s little in the way of crowd control here at the fan-friendly Fox).

Mattison shines on lead vocals for “Key to the Highway”, with Tedeschi and Trucks riffing it up on the blues classic where every note feels like a gem because the band is so dialed in. Keyboardist Gabe Dixon shows his organ chops on a big solo during “Let Me Get By”, powering the jam higher as the Tedeschi Trucks Band takes on the vibe of an all-star football team where any player can step up to make a big play on any given song. A rousing romp through the title track from 2013’s Made Up Mind closes the set with another surge and what a set it’s been.

The energy conjured this evening calls for a great encore, and the band delivers as they take the classic rocker “Space Captain” for a stellar ride. Tedeschi shines on the vocal about an alien who gets stuck on Earth when he forgets where he came from but leads a movement of learning to live together. Trucks trades licks with the horn players on a great jam that builds and builds for a big uplifting finish, and there’s no doubt that this has been a top shelf show.

Fans in need of a nightcap to ponder what’s just gone down have multiple options, with one of the best being the Woods Bar & Brewery just a block down the street where a jazz band is playing for free on the patio. Here one can quaff a craft brew and ponder that “Space Captain” encore further. If spiritually advanced aliens can learn to live together with a young species like we humans, there might yet be hope for humanity coming together to rise above the corporate tyranny that has Earth on a path toward the climate change meltdown of Mad Max Fury Road.

It’s back to the Fox a day later for two more full sets of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the first time their visit has resulted in four sets since there’s been no opening band on night one this time. “Hard Case” is another winning tune from the new album that kicks off the show with an energetic blast, a melodic rocker somewhat in the same vein as “Part of Me”. Another early highlight occurs on the coveted “Don’t Drift Away”, a dynamic tune with a deep groove and a mystical vibe that feels like it must be a classic cover from the early ’70s yet is a Trucks original co-authored with Mattison and Doyle Bramhall Jr. (and which has now been a welcome staple of all three Fox runs.) Tedeschi is a shining star here as is the entire lineup as the song highlights the collective strength of the ensemble with the tight horns and harmony vocals.

Other first set highlights include a groovy take on Sleepy John Estes’ “Leaving Trunk” and more deep blues on Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying”. The ensemble comes together for a big set closer with an extended jam on “Idle Wind” that takes the audience into the last set break on another high. The second set is a tour de force as the Tedeschi Trucks Band deals aces from a diverse deck with their sublimely enchanting mid-tempo rocker “Anyhow” opening the set, followed by prototype mystical psychedelia as Trucks and Tedeschi pay tribute to George Harrison on “Within You Without You”. Derek’s slide melody mimics Susan’s vocals for a transcendent moment that segues right into the complimentary melodies of “Just As Strange”.

A peak moment follows with the infectious bluesy funk of “Joyful Noise”, a flashback to the Derek Trucks Band’s 2002 album of the same name and an indicator of how many great songs Derek and Susan left behind when they decided to merge their bands. There’s plenty more material sitting on the shelf from their previous bands with which the Tedeschi Trucks Band could easily expand the repertoire (such as Susan’s entire 2008 Back to the River LP, packed with tunes too good to be gathering dust). “Bound for Glory” from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s first album has functioned as something of a theme song over the past decade, and so it is here as the blues-rock gem highlights how Susan’s voice and Derek’s guitar compliment each other so well.

The blend of diverse original material with a wide-ranging array of superb blues and classic rock covers is part of what makes the Tedeschi Trucks Band a leading torch carrier for the blues tradition, ever paying tribute to the past while continuing to move the medium forward. One of their best tribute tunes closes the show in fiery style as the band tears it up on Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, with Derek leading the band on a trip back to the late ’60s that pays off with incendiary results. A “Let’s Go Get Stoned” encore puts a mellow yet festive cap on the two-night stand, concluding a fabulous run that leaves some fans wishing they had more time and financial freedom to follow the band up and down the West Coast for the next two weeks. Live music doesn’t get much more inspiring than that in 2019.