Already Free

The Derek Trucks Band

Victor, 2009

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/18/2009

Derek Trucks is a different kind of guitar god.

Not that his deity is in any doubt; never mind that he’s played regularly with the Allman Brothers Band since he was 11 years old, at 30, Trucks is simply the finest slide guitar player alive today.

He is, in his own inimitable way, the Jimi Hendrix of slide.  Both men found a home in music they made their own that nonetheless had deep roots in rhythm and blues, soul and jazz, roadhouse boogie and even gospel.  Both men affected a kind of earthy spirituality and determined optimism in their lyrics.  Most of all, though, like Hendrix, Trucks is a spectacular player who has learned to transform his instrument into a profound and unique artistic voice; his guitar literally sings.  His songs include vocals as well – in Trucks’ case, from the band’s principal lead vocalist Mike Mattison as well as serial guests  Doyle Bramhall II and Susan Tedeschi -- but these varying flavors and textures at the mike only make it all the more evident what a constant and dominant force Trucks’s unique voice is within the band which bears his name.

The group itself is a band of world-class musical veterans who can lay a groove as deep as the Mississippi, the better for Trucks to soar over the top of it.  Yonrico Scott (drums) and Todd Smallie (bass) have built Trucks’ musical foundation for more than a decade now, joined along the trail by the superb and versatile Kofi Burbridge (keys, flute)  and Count M’Butu (percussion).

The way the band functions, you’ve essentially got two lead vocalists – whoever is singing the lyrics, and Trucks.  Trucks isn’t playing the melody, he’s soloing almost the whole time, but he’s so delicate and nimble and expressive with his playing that he functions like a second lead vocalist; I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like it in terms of arrangements.  “Our Love” is a good example, with a basic midtempo rhythm arrangement decorated simultaneously by both Bramhall’s lead vocal and Trucks’ soaring slide.  Trucks harmonizes with and counterpoints and trades phrases with Bramhall throughout the songs, both verses and choruses, executing a dance of almost otherworldly beauty.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The artistry and subtlety of Trucks’ phrasing on segments like the opening to the blues “Down Don’t Bother Me” are just phenomenal.  If the opening of “Down” is something to behold, though, the soloing at the climax of the song is almost beyond words.  It’s so astonishingly expressive, it makes me think of the old Eric Clapton quote about waiting glumly to go on while watching Stevie Ray Vaughan tear up the stage opening for him – it was almost a relief by the end because “no one could possibly expect me to be that good.”

The versatility of the band Trucks has assembled around him allows him to try out all sorts of different musical flavors and textures.  “Something To Make You Happy” features one of Mattison’s best soulful vocals over an electric funk beat, sounding for all the world like a swampy, psychedelic  Sly & the Family Stone… with slide guitar.  “Maybe This Time,” like “I Know,” is a sweet slice of blue-eyed soul; the swampy back-porch blues “Don’t Miss Me” ends with a wink in the form of cricket noises; and “Get What You Deserve” features Trucks skittering and slicing over a thumping boogie beat (ZZ Top only wish they could pull this one off). 

The best song on the album, though, might just be “Sweet Inspiration,” featuring both Mattison and Tedeschi (who is married to and often tours with Trucks).  Burbridge’s gospel organ opens up, joined by Trucks playing a tasty little blues riff and the choired male-female lead vocals.  It’s a rich, full-blooded, foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel-blues that, near the end, finds Trucks’ guitar literally dancing on top of the pile.  “Days Is Almost Gone” is a slightly grittier take on the same sort of tent-revival uplift.

Everything Trucks plays has an easygoing, friendly, positive vibe; it’s amazing how he manages to make every track feel sunny, even when he’s playing a deep, deep blues like “Don’t Miss Me.”  There are times when the determinedly glass-is-half-full lyrics slip into cliche or simply repeat ideas.  Most of the time, though, Trucks and band simply blind you to any flaws with the rich textures and pure brilliance of their playing.   By the time the brief, gentle, yet stirring closer “Already Free” rolls around, the conclusion is inevitable.  Whether its distinctively earthy, back-porch-jam vibe fits your personal taste or not, you should take the time to try to understand -- this is what great music sounds like.

Rating: A-

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© 2009 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Victor, and is used for informational purposes only.