Tedeschi Trucks Band, 12 members strong and improbably still greater than the sum of its parts, graces the Robinson Auditorium stage for the third time Nov. 16. On their first visit in July of 2012, they’d just won a Grammy for their initial recording, 2011’s “Revelator.” They returned in 2017, and their momentum continues to increase, both locally and in the world at large, as they stretch the boundaries of hard-to-classify roots music. Is it rock? Blues? Soul? Jazz? Gospel? They’re all of the above, and then some.
The Nov. 16 show is their final stop on a seemingly endless string of tour dates in support of their latest releases, “Signs” from February, and “High and Mighty,” an EP released in September. The band plays its final shows for 2019 in Boston in December, closing the book on a year of triumph and tragedy. On the Feb. 7 release date of “Signs,” a record that deals pointedly with personal loss and grief, founding band member and musical powerhouse Kofi Burbridge died of a heart ailment. The band soldiered on, creating some of the most urgent and passionate music of their career.
We caught up with the gregarious Derek Trucks and heard an earful, starting with reminiscences past gigs in Arkansas in the mid-’90s:
Derek Trucks: Well, what was the club? I was trying to remember —
It was called Smitty’s.
Yeah, that’s what I was trying to remember because I have a picture I took in front of it, with our RV parked under the sign because it said, it said “Friday: Derek Trucks Band. Saturday: Vanilla Ice.” (laughs) I remember just getting a kick out of that. Lot of people going to both of those shows. (laughs)
You got the first gig and you were like 15 years old, and at the time, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and all that was happening and you were getting gigs because “Oh, he’s great for a kid.”
And you showed up and you kind of removed the asterisk and then you came back a few years later with Derek Trucks Band and my memory of that one is that Susan was along and she asked for a sandwich that wasn’t on the rider and the owner was like, “Who the hell is Susan Tedeschi?”
She got her sandwich? (laughs)
Yeah, she got her sandwich, and she sang “Turn on Your Lovelight.” (laughs)
That’s awesome. That seems like a fair trade! (laughs)
I remember those days. I remember a lot of what it felt like was — we were on the road trying to remove asterisks. (laughs) Because it was either, he’s a kid that’s related to a drummer for The Allman Brothers, or it’s this kid and it took … Shit, it took until maybe a few years ago until everyone goes, “Wait, no, he’s just old now.” (laughs) But either you like it or you don’t! But it was a good long while that that’s kind of the … Whatever gets people talking and in the door, so they can put their ears on it I think is you don’t overthink that stuff too much. But that was a big part of us touring. And then people show up wanting to hear a blues band and you’re playing Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Sun Ra. You’re not always making friends! (Laughs)
Have you got any Arkansas-specific associations or anything about this place that make you want to come here?
Blake Budney [Tedeschi Trucks Band’s manager, a Little Rock native], who’s been with me for 25 years now. He was probably driving the van or the Winnebago when we played Smitty’s. (laughs) So he’s from there, his family’s from there and once we got to know Levon Helm and you start — that was one of Blake’s proudest things. And so “Yeah, we’re from right up the road from Levon.” I was like, “Good, you’re good people there as far as I’m concerned,” and then we used to play a lot of shows in the area with Colonel Bruce Hampton.
There was a club we used to play in, I think Fayetteville. We had just some amazing shows. There was always a handful of places in the middle of the country where you just … you would have, there would be a great scene, and you’d have a few great shows and you would always light up and getting back there. And then we took many, we would schedule days off in Hot Springs just because it was such a cool, relaxing, weird spot to spend days off. (laughs) We’ve had some good history there and as soon as we booked this one, Blake reached out, he’s like, “You’re going back to my hometown.” I would say, “Well, you better be there, Blake.” Wait, there’s some family ties, too.
No. Excellent. Well, do any of the pillars of music that came from Arkansas, enter into how you make a set list or anything like that?
Well, I think we’ve done an Al Green tune from time to time and we’ve certainly done some Band tunes, so … I think we’ll be thinking about them. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of those popped up.
Fairly recently, Bill Frisell was in town and he’d made a record called “Disfarmer,” that was about this photographer. That lived up in the hills. So, he’s playing this really improvisational set. And then after he finishes one of these, they were all sort of medleys he played, he popped up and said, “Yeah, I just played a bunch of stuff from “Disfarmer” and I had no intention of doing it.”
That’s awesome. I love that dude, man. He is one of a kind.
I’m curious if there’s any sense of, when you go someplace, does history and musical influence somehow, influence how you play or what you’re thinking about?
Absolutely. And I think with us at this point, a lot of the rooms we play, a lot of the specific places we’re in, there’s so much history. Either that we weren’t there for, or that we were there for. I walk into a lot of these rooms now and I remember, “Oh, that was, that’s where Gregg [Allman’s] dressing room was. And that’s where my uncle [Butch Trucks’] dressing room was. And that’s where me and Kofi hung or …” There’s a lot of ghosts in a lot of these places for us.
So you think about those things, too, but you certainly think about the music that was created in the places that you go. I mean we’re music fans first, so we have usually a pretty good awareness of who came from where. Another, not quite as directly, but Colonel Bruce Hampton, he had a record called “Arkansas” and Yonrico Scott who played drums with me for 15 years, one of the first times I saw Rico, that’s what they were playing. And there’s some pretty amazing videos from the eighties of them doing just total outside-out versions of “Arkansas.” But that was high on the list here. Just think, whenever I see Arkansas, I think of Colonel, Colonel Bruce [Hampton]. (laughs) I don’t know why it’s so tied. And then we ended up touring with them there are a lot too, but he’s heavy on our mind, at most points.
What a gift that guy was.
That’s for sure, man. I think about that a lot with Colonel, Kofi and Yonrico [Scott, Derek Trucks Band drummer, who died in September], are the three people … That’s the sentiment I get, is how lucky we were to get to know them and just that they did what they did, because they changed a lot of people’s lives. And Colonel was … he was just larger than life, that guy. I don’t think anyone that ever met him, had ever met anybody like him, before or since they met him. So he really was something and he directly changed my course and a lot of people that I know and respect, he put people on the right path … Or the wrong path, but it didn’t matter. (laughs)
It was a different path anyway! (laughs)
He put people places! (laughs)
On “Signs” … it’s dedicated to CeDell Davis, sort of in association with Colonel Bruce. How’d that happen?
Well, Colonel loved CeDell so fucking much that we just thought it would be a good nod to the Colonel. I think Colonel would — you’d rather have somebody there for him, then have him there himself. So that was a respectful nod to the Colonel. And I met CeDell through the Colonel as well. When the Colonel would find or stumble across a musician like CeDell, it lit him up so much. And I remember one of the first sessions I ever did was on a CeDell Davis record with the Colonel. Yeah, it might’ve been his first record, which I think they titled ”The Best of CeDell Davis,” which I love.
Is that a Fat Possum deal?
Yeah, yeah. I think it was Fat Possum, mid-’90s maybe. So we thought that’d be a good nod to the Colonel.
So he was still doing the deal with the butter knife at that point, I guess?
Oh yeah, no, he was playing slide with a butter knife. And I remember being in the studio and somebody asked him how he wanted his amp to sound and he said, “I don’t care as long as it sounds.” (laughs) That’s the way! We’ll make this shit happen. I don’t need any toys! (laughs)
He was sort of a mainstay around here.
I first saw him when (Little Rock native) Robert Palmer did a book tour with ”Deep Blues” when he first wrote the book. And he brought him out to do a little mini-set as this shiny example of the Delta Blues in the flesh, you know? Here in our midst.
Living and breathing, that’s right. Man, he was something, too. I got to meet Bob Palmer through Colonel as well. I played a show at Tipitina’s with him and he actually got him up to play I think, clarinet. Him and Michael Ray from Sun Ra’s band.
But that’s fascinating. And that book ”Deep Blues” is really, really something, that’s an amazing piece of writing. And I mean, that sent me on a lot of different trails too. There’s some great shit in there.
Yeah, there is. And, it’s cool that we’re living so close to that. It’s not that distant, really.
No, it’s not man. I mean there’s still reverberations of that stuff in the hills, no doubt.
In a recent Oxford American interview, Rhiannon Giddens was talking about this whole concept of musical genres. She said it was — they’re “abhorrent” to her, that she dismissed the whole impulse to put music into different kinds of categories, and I’m just curious what your reaction to that is.
I mean, I’ve kind of always been of that mindset, you know? I think it’s beautiful that you can go to different places and there’s regional sounds and there’s different scenes and there’s things that popped up and turned into a genre. But for the most part, those are labels that are put on things after they’ve happened. (laughs)
… And I don’t know if they really help. I certainly know personally, when we were coming up, especially with my solo band with Yonrico and Todd [Smallie] and Kofi and then we’re hitting the road, they’re always trying to figure out what you are, and can you play a blues festival? It’s not blues enough. Can you play a jazz festival? It’s too blues. Can you play this? It’s not jam-band enough, (laughs) everything was — there’s a lot of things that are kind of off limits or no one really accepts you into their scene, which is fine. But I agree with her in the sense that, I don’t know if it’s so necessary, you know? I think it’s necessary to differentiate between music that’s made to, like just straight pop music and MUSIC, music. (laughs) I don’t even know if you need to put a label that. I think you know, pretty quickly when you hear it or feel it.
But I mean, I’ve always been of the blur-the-lines mindset. Especially this day and age. I mean, you grow up and you hear what you hear. I can hear Howlin’ Wolf and get a similar feeling when I hear Charlie Christian play guitar or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing. It’s all, human longing, and it’s all spirit to me. And if you can do it in a way that feels authentic, in a way, and if you mean it and you’re not pandering to an audience or if it’s not cheap, sometimes you can handle music that’s maybe really powerful from somebody, if you don’t do it with the right sentiment, I think maybe you can come off wrong. But I think if you go into something purely, I don’t think there’s any reason to overthink any of that. But I mean I agree with her. The sentiment I agree with. I still don’t know what we would label what we do as. There’s sure are a lot of influences, I guess a lot of the labels kind of work, but none of it feels right to me yet.
Oh yeah, I got to use a lot of hyphens. I’ll tell you that. (laughs)
That’s always been the case. Takes a lot of hyphens! (laughs)
You can live with that?
It’s hyphen music. (laughs)