Signs

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Snakefarm / Fantasy Records, 2019

http://www.tedeschitrucksband.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/20/2019

The rock band as substitute or metaphorical family is a scenario familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Almost Famous (and if you haven’t, get right on that) or read, well, one of my novels, for example. The difference with the dozen-strong roots ensemble Tedeschi Trucks Band is that they are literally, as well as figuratively, a family.

This may feel like a slight exaggeration given that the only legally related pair I’m aware of in the entire dozen are co-captains Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, who took the audacious step in 2010 of putting their own young family’s needs first by combining their respective groups into a single, oversized, jubilant rock-and-soul revue. When you take that premise and the very generous way they’ve approached blending their two bands into one and set them out on the road for eight years, and then hit them with adversity and loss, the “family thing” gets very real very quickly. (Said adversity and loss has included, in rapid succession: the passing of Derek’s uncle Butch Trucks, his former bandmate Gregg Allman, TTB friends Leon Russell and B.B. King, Susan’s friend and mentor Colonel Bruce Hampton—and now, just a few days ago, among the hardest blows of all: their musical brother and founding TTB keyboardist/flautist Kofi Burbridge.)

The music that Tedeschi Trucks Band makes—a heady, expansive mélange of blues, soul, Southern rock and what the band itself calls “swamp magic”—is often big and dense and layered and complex, yet still allows the space for the individual personalities of its 12 members to shine through. Improbably, it also still manages to feel intimate. Big credit there goes to bandleaders Tedeschi (lead vocals, guitar) and Trucks (guitar), who ensure this is a true ensemble rather than a star vehicle. Trucks doesn’t insist on having his weaving, soaring slide guitar lines be the star of every track, although when he takes a solo, there’s never any question who you’re hearing. And Tedeschi might be the band’s lead voice, but former Derek Trucks Band lead vocalist Mike Mattison is a formidable presence throughout, trading lead vocals with Tedeschi here, complementing her with harmony vocals there, and leading a background chorus that also includes Alecia Chakour and Mark Rivers. The writing credits are spread around as well, with Mattison, bassist Tim Lefebrve, and Burbridge each co-writing with Tedeschi and Trucks, along with longtime friends of the band Doyle Bramhall II and Warren Haynes.

The point is, on a TTB album, there’s room for everyone to shine, and that’s part of what makes these albums feel special and grounded and like a genuine family affair. As for the music, well. Signs finds TTB doing what great artists do: turning their experiences—adversity, grief, perseverance, determination—into art.

The album opens up with the rousing “Signs, High Times,” a dense, deeply funky r&b / gospel-inflected number with Tedeschi, Mattison, Chakour and Rivers trading lead vocals as the group drives hard towards an emphatic Trucks solo. The entire band—which also includes dual drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson and horn section Kebbi Williams (sax), Eprhaim Owens (trumpet) and Elizabeth Lea (trombone)—is fully engaged.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“I’m Gonna Be There” opens with a slower, airier groove anchoring a song about standing by one another, feeling a little beaten down by the times we’re in, but hanging together and picking each other up like families do, as the music does a gradual build to an ecstatic, gospel-tinged climax. The group takes yet a third path with the Tedeschi-penned “When Will I Begin,” beginning with a sleepy, horn-heavy New Orleans jazz funeral march that shifts and builds, adding strings and background vocals, subtly gathering a tidal momentum that jumps the tracks at 1:45 into a fresh, muscular second act that Trucks punctuates with a keening solo, before they drop back for a woozy, swaying reprise of the opening.

Those first three tracks set the tone and pace for this, the strongest and most musically adventurous album TTB has produced yet, 11 tracks of medicine for the soul. If what you need right now is a bouncy, horns-and-gospel chorus-and-clavinet affirmation, “Walk Through This Life” is the ticket. (“I couldn't do it without you / You couldn't do it without me / Let's walk through this life together / Show a little staying power / Even in our darkest hour / There's still you and me.”) Or maybe what you’re craving is a concise, gorgeous acoustic guitar, strings and flute glass-is-half-full ballad? Serve yourself a hearty helping of the Mattison-written, Tedeschi-sung “Strengthen What Remains.”

Trucks and Burbridge co-write “Still Your Mind,” an especially stirring affirmation whose thrumming, rippling melody penetrates deep into the subconscious before Trucks positively explodes with the fiercest solo of this set. Mattison and Tedeshci trade off lead vocals on their co-write “Hard Case,” a big, exuberant soul number topped with Trucks’ soaring slide and a side of horns. Dark electric blues number “Shame” churns along, riding alternating blasts of guitar and horns, a ferocious encapsulation of this particular political moment (“Shame, oh the hurt they put on me and you / Shame, shame, shame, you know they're murdering the truth”). Tedeschi ends the song wailing “Shame on you / Shame on me for letting you / Shame us all / Shame on him,” leaving a legacy of chills.

The dense, fierce “Shame” sets up the airy, rather somber soul/gospel turn of “All The World,” another tune about perseverance: “All the world is bleeding / I can feel it / And I've seen it / But while our hearts are beating / We can heal it / If we mean it.” And then we’re back on the upswing with the steady-on, uplifting r&b of “They Don’t Shine,” featuring a steady backbeat, chunky lead guitar, thrumming Hammond, and a call-and-answer chorus. It’s a big, sunny, driving ensemble number that feels by the end like a gospel tent revival with Tedeschi and Trucks at the pulpit, preaching.

The album closes on a quiet, contemplative note, as Trucks (on acoustic) and Tedeschi memorialize their friend Col. Bruce Hampton, who died at their side, playing the encore at the concert they helped assemble to celebrate his 70th birthday. “The Ending” is a beautifully crafted, deeply poignant duet between the two principals, a song that captures both their friend’s playful personality and the vivid emotion of the moment: “Just blowing his smoke and playing along / He turned into the light of his favorite song / Looked down at his watch and said ‘it's time to go’ / And he was gone.”

A career, no matter how long or short, is made up of moments. By the time a band gets to its fourth album, there’s often a certain sameness that creeps in, a sense that the group has settled into its comfort zone and is continuing to mine the same musical vein to diminishing returns. This album blows that stereotype out of the water with a powerful, rangy set of songs rich with emotion and insight, a dozen masters of their craft working as one to bring a message of hope and resilience to the people. For all the adversity they’ve had to push through to get here, Signs feels like the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s finest moment to date.

Rating: A

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