By Ernest Suarez
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 29, 2009
Twelve years ago, backstage at New York's Beacon Theatre during the Allman Brothers Band's annual March fling, a baby-faced, 17-year-old Derek Trucks noticed I was wearing a John Hurt T-shirt. He was waiting to sit in with the Allmans but stopped and amazed me with a disquisition on the Mississippi blues man's life and guitar technique.
When I reminded him of the incident this spring, Trucks laughed. "You have to respect the past," he said. "I've always been drawn to people who spend their whole lives trying to improve, to raise the bar. With Coltrane, Miles, Duane or Ali Akbar Khan, you sense that everything they were, every ounce of their beings, goes into their music."
The same could be said of Trucks. Music is in his DNA.
He was named after the legendary super group Derek and the Dominoes. His uncle is Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks. As a teenager, Derek Trucks jammed with Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joe Walsh and Stephen Stills. He became a full-fledged member of the Allman Brothers at age 20. Three years ago, Rolling Stone put him on the cover and christened him a "guitar god." In the past two years, he has toured with Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. This spring the Derek Trucks Band's new CD, "Already Free," debuted at No. 19 on Billboard's Top 200 and ascended to No. 1 on the blues chart.
It's no wonder Santana calls Trucks "the anointed one."
But if your notion of rock stardom conjures images from "Almost Famous," forget it. Derek and his band mates are another breed.
Classic literature, books on history, the arts and politics circulate among them. The liner notes on their CDs feature quotes from poets, philosophers and cultural historians. When touring they study the regions they visit, frequent museums and track down forgotten musicians whose work they admire.
"Last time we played South America," Trucks recalls, "I got into Gabriel García Márquez and read four or five of his novels. In Shanghai, I read an 800-page biography of Mao. When we were playing Memphis and Oxford, Mississippi, in the late '90s, I picked up Robert Palmer's book, "Deep Blues," visited the crossroads and looked up Junior Kimbrough. I told him I was just a fan. . . . He passed away two or three weeks later. I was fortunate to get to speak with him. Those direct links to the past can't be replaced. With art, it's so much about the conditions in which a person is brought up, about life and times. "
"Everything I absorb affects my music," he continues. "I love books, sports, nature, Italian painting, especially the old masters. Exploring local cultures led me to different forms of roots music, to what people call world music."
Lead singer Mike Mattison is a Harvard graduate with a degree in English and American literature. "Studying poetry," he says, "helped shape my songwriting. It taught me how to compress language and get as much as possible out of a few phrases."
On stage and in the studio the band's passions transform into a potent blend of rock, blues and jazz infused with rhythms from India, Africa, Latin America, Aboriginal Australia and the Far East.
Unlike most electric guitar players, Trucks shuns a pick and uses his thumb and fingers to harvest notes and chords that soar, slice and glide, sounding like a cross between Duane Allman on a '61 Gibson Les Paul and John Coltrane on tenor sax. John Mayer has likened it to a "female singer from the '50s or '60s, just belting it out."
"Already Free," recorded at Trucks's home on Jacksonville, Fla.'s swampy outskirts, features a gritty cover of Dylan's "Down in the Flood" and several compositions by Trucks and Mattison. Guitar virtuosos Doyle Bramhall II and vocalist Susan Tedeschi, Trucks's Grammy award-winning wife, spice up several offerings with guest appearances.
Trucks and Mattison form a particularly formidable duo. Before Mattison's arrival, guests such as Tedeschi, Gregg Allman, Rubén Blades and Solomon Burke provided lead vocals on the Derek Trucks Band's recordings. On "Songlines" (2006) and "Already Free," Mattison's gravelly, soulful crooning adds a distinctive zest to Trucks's signature guitar. On several songs Mattison's vocals and Trucks's blues-based licks engage in a dynamic call-and-response structure that recalls slave spirituals.
"Derek is very democratic in his tastes and in the way the band runs," Mattison says, "and he's very loyal." With the exception of Mattison, the rest of the crack sextet has played together since the 29-year-old Trucks was a teenager.
Trucks has consistently refused music industry overtures to join or form a more mainstream band and laments the direction of much contemporary music. "Even with a genre as young as rock and electronic music," he says, "there used to be more attention to perfecting craft, to learning your instrument inside and out. Now so many songs seem to be about banging out three chords, having an attitude and getting your 15 minutes of fame. We're chasing something different."
Derek Trucks Band Appearing Saturday at the Western Maryland Blues Fest. Downtown Hagerstown, Md., North Potomac Street. The Derek Trucks Band performs from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $20 for today, $35 for Saturday or $50 for two-day tickets. Available at http://www.dhwebsites.com/bluesfest. For more information and a list of other performers: http://www.blues-fest.org The Download: For a sampling of Derek Trucks Band music, check out: From "Already Free": -- "Down in the Flood" From "Songlines": -- "Volunteered Slavery" From "Afro Blue": -- "Soul Serenade"