Chalking up a couple of hundred road dates a year, the Derek Trucks Band is one of the hardest-working blues-rock outfits you'll find running down the blacktop these days. It's a testament to the vision and talent of band namesake Derek Trucks that, in better than a decade, the revolving door of members experienced by most bands is a one-way entrance for the Trucks band...musicians jump in, and seldom leave. Thus the band's enormous musical chemistry, and a sound fueled by a diversity of experience that allows them to pursue an inspired mix of blues, Southern-flavored roots-rock, R&B, and other influences.
Sometime during 2008, Trucks and crew took enough time away from touring to convene at the recording studio the guitarist built on his property next to his home in Florida. Already Free was the result, an album written and recorded in the studio with Trucks and his talented bandmates able to create with a degree of leisure unheard of since the early 1970s heydays of the Allman Brothers Band, Delaney & Bonnie, and other Southern blues-soul-rock oriented bands. Backed by longtime bassist Todd Smallie, drummer Yonrico Scott, keyboardist Kofi Burbridge, and percussionist Count M'Butu, Trucks and singer Mike Mattison have put together a classic album.
The Derek Trucks Band's Already Free
Opening with Dylan's "Down In The Flood," an oft-overlooked tune from The Basement Tapes album the scribe cut with the Band, Trucks and his tight-knit band take the somber song deeper into its Southern roots. With Mattison's soulful vocals rising above a wiry guitar line, the rest of the band kicks in with an infectious, rhythmic groove that is part blues, part backwoods gospel. Trucks' solo here is tasteful, albeit subdued, straining at the seams but kept within the confines of the song.
By contrast, a cover of Paul Pena's early-1970s song "Something To Make You Happy" offers joyous, unbridled funk-n-roll, with the band establishing a deep groove early on, within which Trucks embroiders a slick, '70s-style guitar lick. Sharing the six-string duties with friend and guest Doyle Bramhall II, the two talented pickers dance above the song's stylish rhythm with reckless aplomb.
A Dash of Memphis Soul
Bramhall takes front and center for the New Orleans-flavored "Maybe This Time," his vocals imbuing the song with a romantic weariness that is supported by a rich, solid instrumental groove. The band travels to the Bluff City for "Sweet Inspiration," the Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn song a classic slice of Memphis soul. Mattison's throaty vocals were tailor-made for this sort of workout, sounding a little like the late, great Otis Redding while Trucks and the band deliver a reverent soundtrack with sly guitar licks and Kofi Burbridge's chiming Hammond B-3 flourishes.
The rollicking "Get What You Deserve" is the sort of guitar work-out that blues-rock fanatics expect from Mr. Trucks, and it doesn't disappoint. Featuring bassist Todd Smallie's gruff vocals, Trucks and Bramhall deliver a scorching performance, their clashing guitars trading off each other, each bringing a different tone and flavor to the job.
Back Where I Started
"Back Where I Started," co-written by Trucks and his Allman Brothers bandmate Warren Haynes, features Trucks' wife Susan Tedeschi on vocals, accompanied by sparse instrumentation and Trucks' elegant acoustic guitar-strum. The song highlights Tedeschi's warm, blue-eyed soul vocal style and puts Trucks' six-string skills, shorn of any effects or amplification, clearly in the spotlight. The rambling "I Know," best known as recorded by R&B shouter Big Maybelle, represents the other side of the coin. This full band effort echoes classic-era Allman Brothers with its spry slide-guitar fretwork, spirited keyboard-bashing, multi-rhythmic percussion, and the subtle contributions of a full horn section.
Already Free closes out with the album's title cut, the song designed to sound like an antiqued country blues number (complete with crackling vinyl sounds). With just a pair of percussionists (one of them younger brother Duane Trucks) behind singer Mattison and Trucks' acoustic and electric guitars, the song is the sort of mid-tempo blues that one could imagine Charley Patton singing in the Delta, with imaginative, positive, and religiously-tinged lyrics sung above the gorgeous guitarplay.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The incredible musical chemistry of the road-tested and studio-savvy band behind Trucks is undeniable, and the loose feel to the material is the by-product of the low-pressure sessions held in Trucks' home studio. Already Free is a landmark collection of songs and performances, and an excellent example of what can be done within the blues framework, the Derek Trucks Band one of the best there is at combining traditional blues, roots-rock, and vintage soul with various more exotic influences in the creation of exciting, vital music. (Victor Records, released January 13, 2009)