Photos: Marc Lowenstein

Tedeschi Trucks Band Brings Blues Power to Oakland for Benefit of Mankind

The Tedeschi Trucks Band carries the banner of the blues as an artform that not only pays homage to the past but continues to blaze a trail through the present.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

OAKLAND – There’s a spark in the air with the Tedeschi Trucks Band rolling and tumbling into uptown Oaktown for a two-night stand at the resplendent Fox Theater. They’re not a jamband per se, but the 12-person blues rock ensemble has a fairly large repertoire and are known for some transcendent jamming moments, so the chance to catch them on consecutive nights is always a treat since shows won’t be the same. It was also announced that a film crew would be in house for a live album/DVD project, and so there’s a historic vibe in the air on this Thursday-Friday run.

There’s been a sense of destiny surrounding slide guitar maestro Derek Trucks and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi since shortly after they met in 1999, when Tedeschi opened a show for the Allman Brothers Band (which Trucks was a member of.) The two old souls quickly connected, married in 2001 and started a family. They didn’t tour together though until 2007, when they put together a “Soul Stew Revival” summer tour that visited San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium that June. The electrifying performance that night pointed to the future of the blues and that future has been now since the dynamic duo officially joined musical forces for good by forming the Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2010.

Now touring behind their third studio album, 2016’s Let Me Get By, the Tedeschi Trucks Band carries the banner of the blues as an artform that not only pays homage to the past but continues to blaze a trail through the present. Fans can always count on the band to hit on some blues classics, part of what great blues artists have always done to pay homage to those that paved the way in this uniquely American artform. But the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s own repertoire charts a fresh and inspiring course for how the blues can continue to evolve in the 21st century by mixing in jazz, soul, funk, rock and more.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers open the Thursday show with a spirited set that finds Bluhm in fine form. Maybe it’s her classic hippy-style suede vest/skirt with long tassles, the stage fan blowing her hair back like a super model or just being stoked to be touring with her friends in the Tedeschi Trucks Band, but Bluhm seems particularly engaged here. A cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” invokes a gonzo vibe, with Bluhm even looking a bit like Grace Slick as she leads her band through the classic tune from “the Summer of Love”. Like Tedeschi, Bluhm comes from a bluesy background and fits right in here on an evening showcasing the blues.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s cutting edge interpretations of the blues include not just great musicianship, but also an emphasis on using the blues in their traditional mode to work through hard times and reflect injustice in society. “Laugh About It” from the new album is a prime example early in Thursday’s show, with Tedeschi passionately imploring listeners to “Rise up, right where they put you down… Stand up while you still can, rise up, it’s worth a chance, rise up…” The band catches a groove here with Trucks making his guitar sing, as he will all night, while the horns and harmony vocalists hit the accents to keep the song surging. A heartfelt rendition of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” taps into a similar vein, with Tedeschi’s cathartic vocals and Truck’s mournful slide guitar helping keep Harrison’s compassionate spirit alive.

The band’s musical diversity is ever impressive, veering from Beatle-esque pop to the bluesy funk of “Get Out of My Life Woman”, to the jazzy fusion of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and the psyche rock of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”. The title track from Let Me Get By on the other hand is a zeitgeist tune for 2016, with the song’s sentiment for just wanting to make it through the economic challenges of modern times and be able to do it your own way. Keyboardist Kofi Burbridge stars with some dynamic organ work here, giving the band an extra sonic dimension.

The sound reaches yet another dimension still on “These Walls” with the assistance of Alam Khan, who reprises his sarod work from the studio recording of the song on the band’s first album Revelator. Khan is the son of Ali Akbar Khan, with whom Trucks once studied with at the Ali Akbar College of Music. The school in sunny San Rafael, just 10 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is devoted to the classical music of North India and the influence seems to pops up often during this run. The sarod sounds kind of like a sitar, adding an extra spiritual vibe to the show on a song that seems to marry gospel with an Eastern mystic sound as Khan and Trucks trade artful licks.

“Bound for Glory” finds the band revving up their full blues rock power with compelling results. Trucks tears it up over a charged groove from bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, before downshifting into the more traditional blues of “How Blue Can You Get?” The answer with this band is deeply. Tedeschi can play guitar too and offers her own bluesy stylings to complement Trucks with a different voice. The “Soul Sacrifice” jam and a “Let’s Go Get Stoned” encore send the audience out into the uptown Oakland night on a high note, where post-show libations are a must after such a vibrant performance. Synchronistic beer fortune smiles on those who stumble into the nearby Woods Bar & Brewery, where the tasty “Local Honey” herbed beer literally contains “a sweet high note of mint and berry”, conjuring visions of legendary South Park superhero and galactic savior Mint-berry Crunch.

Whether the blues power of the Tedeschi Trucks Band could actually save the galaxy might depend on the nature of the threat. But there’s something about this music that seems to provide a sort of spiritual sustenance that feels like it can indeed aid listeners in the ongoing struggle against the forces of darkness. This power is on further display on Friday night as the band offers an “evening with” show featuring two sets with no opening act. The new album’s dynamic opener, “Anyhow” opens the evening with a prime example of the band’s dynamic sound — Trucks’ sweet guitar licks, Burbridge’s complimentary piano and Tedeschi’s soul-soothing voice over a mid-tempo groove that instantly engages the audience.

“Keep on Growing” is an early highlight as the band lights a fuse with the triumphant rocker by the Derek & the Dominoes project that united Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. It’s a showcase for the harmony vocals between Tedeschi and backing (sometimes lead) singer Mike Mattison, who has the perfect raspy voice for the song. The jam highlights Trucks’ Allman-esque style as he leads the band on a melodic surge that gets the whole theater rocking, with an extra boost from the horns. The band’s mastery of the classic rock pantheon continues with a mesmerizing take on the Beatles’ “Within You Without You”, where Tedeschi again seems to summon Harrison’s timeless spiritual connection with higher powers. The song serves as a well-placed intro to the uplifting “Just as Strange”, with the band laying down a bluesy shuffle as Tedeschi sings of freeing herself from the chains that bind.

The ambient “Swamp Raga”, with Burbridge on flute, works in similar fashion as a prelude to an extended rendition of one of the band’s signature songs, “Midnight in Harlem”. The sublime tune written by Mattison features some of Tedeschi’s most impassioned vocals and one of the band’s best jams, as the infectious groove builds and builds with waves of sonic bliss washing over the audience. Trucks’ glistening licks feel akin to sonic rain drops washing away society’s sins, a rare and intoxicating effect which few contemporaries can conjure.

“These Walls” is one of just a handful of tunes repeated from the first night, well-placed as second set opener with Khan reprising his role on the sarod. The song sets a spiritual tone that carries through the set, like a sonic sermon of sorts. Mattison stars on “Leavin’ Trunk” as the band dials up one of their grooviest jams of the run, with hot solos to go around on the funky jam. The band commands the stage with a mystical power on “Don’t Drift Away”, a rare fan favorite that seemed to have drifted from the repertoire for reasons unknown. Tedeschi shines like gypsy angel as she delivers some of her most soul-stirring vocals on the song about a romance in peril. The band connects on one of their deepest grooves with Lefebvre and the drummers really gelling as Trucks delivers one of his most cathartic solos. It feels like the music is playing the band now, sparking an elusive synergy that seems ripe for further exploration.

Tedeschi fronts a stripped down unit of just Lebfevre, Burbridge and one drummer for her performance of long-time fan fave “Angel From Montgomery”, which artfully segues into a crowd-pleasing take on the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree”. She digs deep into the blues well on “I Pity the Fool”, with a rousing vocal that has the audience like moths to a fly. The song follows a standard blues form, but it’s here that the band transforms into a blues orchestra with Trucks laying back as conductor. Tedeschi tears into the solo as the polyrhythmic percussion, keys and and horns propel the jam to electrifying heights.

The “Bitches Brew” jam is welcomely reprised, another dynamic spotlight for how this band can do things that most of their peers would never even think of attempting (having a trumpet player like Ephraim Owens certainly helps). The space jazz jam leads into a climactic rendition of “Let Me Get By” to close the set in rousing fashion. This version goes further than the first night as Trucks and Burbridge move into what seems like a trip back into the “Bitches Brew” jam, only to come out the other side of the cosmic wormhole with a brief “Mission Impossible” jam that puts a triumphant stamp on the run.

A performance like this would seem to call for extra festivities in the encore and so it is as longtime compadre Chris Robinson joins the band for joyous renditions of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain”. When Robinson sings “We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep, when we get up to it,” it feels like the entire congregation is ready to take on the world. This sentiment is furthered on “Space Captain”, a tune where a space traveler is drawn to Earth and then forgets where he came from — “I lost my memory of where I’ve been, We all forgot we could fly, Someday we’ll all change to peaceful men”. When Tedeschi and Robinson harmonize on the “Learning to live together” chorus, it seems plainly evident that rock ‘n’ roll is here to help mankind learn how to live together in peace and harmony. Until that momentous day arrives, the Tedeschi Trucks Band will carry on as some of Earth’s greatest sonic ambassadors.

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