Announcing itself like an honest herd of buffalo hoofing it 'round the mountain, Tedeschi Trucks Band's latest album dives back into the waters of tradition and spirits its members know so well. Album opener and title track "Made Up Mind" has the band restored to the wonder of the first album, though there's a reinvigorated comfort and confidence to the music this time.
Even before the album dropped, however, the band's new material was filling out set lists on the current tour. The response was justifiably terrific.
"We were doing six, seven new tunes a night at one point. To be able to have the crowds come with you on material they've never heard is a good sign," says guitarist Derek Trucks, who currently holds down slot No. 16 on Rolling Stone's top 100 guitarists of all time, via phone from a Rochester, N.Y. hotel room. The band will now caravan into Northeast Ohio to light a fire with an enticing blend of the old and the new.
The band's commitment to the soul of the music is most apparent onstage. Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi and Trucks, her husband, don no airs during performances. Her voice is earthy and welcoming, a spirited dash of spice to the bubbling brew all around her. His blend of Eastern modalities and Delta blues sensibilities, meanwhile, is nothing short of transcendent. (Check out his outro solo on "Idle Wind," sliding neatly into the ether alongside flautist Kofi Burbridge.) "As far as my practice goes, that's always morphing," he says.
With nine other members in the band, the character of the Tedeschi Trucks Band is robust and multifaceted. Limbs of musical grace sprout from every direction during live shows, anchored with zeal by drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson.
"This time around [for Made Up Mind], it was a little bit different," Trucks says. "When we started writing tunes we knew what the band sounded like as opposed to the first record."
And the songwriting took on more natural, organic tones. Written and recorded in the couple's Jacksonville, Fla.-based Swamp Raga Studio, the new album became a steady conglomeration of what the band has achieved so far and what the individual musicians are driven to bring to the table.
"One of the things that I think was a step forward on this record was that we didn't get boxed in by forcing everyone on every song. Nobody was trying to add parts to a song just to be on it," Trucks says. "It's usually just Susan and I and maybe one other person in the room. It starts with acoustic guitars or maybe just electric guitars. It's really broken down, and then you start imagining the band."
The titanic jam on the back end of "The Storm" rekindles the myriad spirits that flow through the band's blues roots and, notably, Trucks' own dedication to the greats that came before him.
"When we first started writing it, I was really thinking of it as an old Delta blues tune," he says. "You know, it felt like a Jack Owens or Skip James riff. Then I started playing it, and it hit me: It could actually be a Zeppelin version of all that stuff."
The nod to John Bonham is deliciously evident in Greenwell and Johnson's heavy percussive work over Trucks' outbound solo. "Everybody's contributing. It's pretty selfless the way everybody approaches this band," the guitarist says.
A quick look at recent set lists showcases "The Storm" as a frequent set closer; tunes like "Misunderstood" and the album's title track often hold down the opening slot of shows. In the end, though, the band builds shows out of the immediacy of the moment. Against the bluesy, folksy backdrop, there's that slight jam band mentality at work. Around every bend in the band's output, there are those doffs of the cap to various genres and, more importantly, the history of the very torch they're carrying.
"We do not try to shy away from [our influences]. We're proud of the music that we listen to and the music that we come out of. And in a lot of ways, this band is proud of the way that we go about making music — the way we do it honestly," he says, referencing the band's constant mélange of great music on the tour bus and his recent rediscovery of B.B. King's Live in Cook County Jail. "The next breed of great musicians is gonna come out of people who listen back. I think the further you go back, the more honest your stuff is gonna be. You need to know your history."
Tucked in and among the countless riffs and melodies laid down by the band over the years — and through each member's own personal career — is that very notion of honesty. Trucks lays it bare, saying that music is an art that needs tending. He adds that the current state of the culture leaves something to be desired.
"Sadly, it's becoming a lost art. I feel like that's kinda what we're up against. There are a lot of phonies out there. You have to be able to contribute, and with this band everyone had paid their dues. It's taken a long time for everybody to get where they've gotten," he says.
"It's a dangerous time in the sense that things are moving very quickly. Shit — you walk down the street and everyone's staring at their phones. I feel like there's a real chance that robots have taken over. It's the same with music, you know? I do attempt every six months or so to figure out what is going on in the world of popular music and just try to give it a listen. I'm always bewildered."
A wayward glance across the cover art for Made Up Mind reveals the inner and outer struggles of an honest band in this confusing and meddlesome year, 2013. The buffalo, running headlong into the crashing wave of modern culture, is the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The train, ceaseless in its banal chug, is set to arrive whether we want it to or not. But one has only to check out the show — the free-wheelin' tour — to see what's going on in more humble corners of the world. .