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Derek Trucks Talks About Loss, Staying Power And Picking Up The Mentor Mantle

When the Tedeschi Trucks Band — the sprawling, Grammy-winning 12-member blues/rock/soul ensemble, led by the husband and wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks — coalesced in 2010, nobody, least of all Tedeschi or Trucks, could have predicted it would be going strong in 2017.

It is, and the music is still sublime. "Let Me Get By," the band's third studio album, drew songwriting and playing chops from everyone (the full band roster would greatly extend this article), while "Live From the Fox Oakland," a recent CD and concert film, captured the TTB on tour in California in September 2016, just as its flamethrowing powers were peaking.

But so far, 2017 has been a drag. In recent months, the extended family lost musician and songwriter Leon Russell; Dap-Kings singer Sharon Jones; Allman Brothers Band founders Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks (Derek's uncle); and improv-rock legend Colonel Bruce Hampton, who died shortly after collapsing on stage at his own 70th birthday celebration.

Most recently, flute/keyboard player Kofi Burbridge underwent emergency heart surgery, which will sideline him for the band's upcoming Wheels of Soul Tour.

Before the Tedeschi Trucks Band rolls up to the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center in Simsbury on Sunday, July 9, Trucks gives and update on Burbridge's condition, what it means to keep the band together, losing his mentors and becoming a role model himself.

Q: First off, how is Kofi doing?

A: Man, he's doing better. He actually made it home today. I'm shocked. It was touch-and-go. I really thought we lost him. It was a rough 36 hours, but he's patched back together. He's going to have a long recovery, but he's here, and he's full Kofi.

When he first became conscious, he was talking about getting on the road. I was like, "Kofi, just get better, man. We will hold down the fort. We'll miss the hell out of you, but don't you stress."

Q: You and he have been playing together for a long time.

A: I think 18 years, maybe longer. It's crazy.

Q: I was recently listening to the duet jam between you and Kofi at the end of "Crying Over You" on the new live album. That's a moment right there.

A: That was fun. There's one that we do live a lot, at the end of "I Want More" where it's flute and guitar. That's one of my favorite moments of the night. Kofi's such a badass. He keeps you on your toes. If he's really digging in and going for it, you better have your act together.

Q: To be able to do what he does on multiple instruments (flute and keyboards) is mind-boggling.

A: He's not normal, man. When it was touch-and-go in the hospital, the surgeon was giving us this, "Well, most people..." I'm thinking, "Kofi is not most people. Kofi's a damn alien." It's been a bitch of a year. As awful as the Kofi stuff was, the fact that he made it is some of the first real good news we've had. The road to recovery is fine, because at least you're still on the road. He's still with us.

Q: It has certainly been a rough year for you.

A: It's been a lot. I think everyone is a bit shell-shocked. The stuff with Butch: You can't unpack that stuff. [Trucks committed suicide in January.] It's unresolved forever.

And then Col. Bruce Hampton: For the Trucks family, he was a family member. [Hampton died on May 1.] He had adopted us, and we had adopted him. He was probably the biggest musical mentor for me and my younger brother Duane [Trucks, currently the drummer for Widespread Panic and Hard Working Americans]. Losing Bruce was like losing a family member, for sure. The way that happened was just insane.

It went from being one of the happiest moments on stage, seeing a guy on his 70th birthday, surrounded by people who truly loved and respected him. ... You could tell he was just humbled and proud about the whole thing. It went from extreme highs to "this is a terrible movie."

Gregg's was a bit expected [Allman died in May, after a long battle with cancer], but the timing made it feel a bit unbearable. It's just such the end of an era, man. When Gregg goes, it makes you relive all the people in that camp that you've lost over the years, including the people I wasn't even here for [Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman, bassist Berry Oakley and others].

We were sitting at Rose Hill Cemetery [in Macon, Ga.]: you see Duane's grave and Berry's grave, you see the families and the kids and the widows, and then Gregg's there. It wraps up this whole insane story, in a lot of ways, you know? There's no one to replace those guys. They were such individuals and just powerful people.

The Colonel was one of those people: While he was here, you thought about him every single day, and since he's gone, you think about him every single day. He occupies a really unique space. You still run things through: How would the Colonel compute this? What would he think? He was the moral compass for the scene. It was all about intention and why you are doing it. It was, "You know if you're bullshitting or not. Are you?"

Since I met him at 12 years old, that's always been the way that I think about it: Am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I playing this song for the right reasons? Am I playing this solo for the right reasons? That was always his thing. That's why he turned so many musicians on to the right path. They would come to him with all this talent and ego, and he would just break them into a bunch of pieces and rebuild them. They'd come back as super-musicians. There's a lot of people who came through his school who are thinking about that stuff every single day.

Q: Those musicians will never be replaced. Do you feel now that part of the mentor role falls to you?

A: A bit. Going back to B.B. King passing away [in 2015], you start losing these monumental musical figures. You're thinking, "There's nobody who's going to replace those people." But then you think about all the conversations you had with them.

B.B. was always about, "You've got to carry this stuff on." He knew you weren't B.B. King. He knew you weren't carrying his specific thing on. It's an impossible task. But he also knew that, by playing those tunes in the right spirit, you were keeping the flame lit in your own little way.

I think that, with everyone that's gone that we've been close to, Leon Russell and all these people who have been in our circle, who've seen Susan and me and something that sparks why they were in it in the first place, you realize: Whether you like it or not, this is on you now. It becomes part of the thing. This last year has made us step back and think about that more than we would otherwise.

At the end of the day, I always come back to the fact that you just do what you do, and you just have to keep doing it. Everybody in this band, especially Susan, is here because you were groomed to do it. You don't have to over-think it. Collectively, we've been on the road for about a thousand years. Twenty, 30 years apiece, we've been doing it. People like the Colonel and Gregg and Butch and [Allman Brothers drummer] Jaimoe. ... Even when you're out with Eric Clapton and Santana, you're learning things, how to keep a band together and professionalism and doing what it takes to keep your head straight. You're picking up things. All along the way, you're being groomed. Sometimes, it's an easy lesson, and sometimes it's not so easy. I feel like it's all part of the process.

You do realize, at some point, "Wow, I'm not the youngest guy in the room anymore." There are people up here who saw me when they were tiny kids. Being on the road at 9 and 10 years old, I was always used to being the youngest guy in the room by half or more. It's a strange realization when that ship has sailed. I know me and Susan feel incredibly lucky to have known all of these people. Some of them feel very present. The Colonel feels present. When you're making musical decisions, you think about him.

For Gregg, I know it was that way with Duane. I saw it happen, in [Allman Brothers Band] rehearsals or after the show. If a song goes too far or got too stretched out, that would sometimes irk Gregg. He would kind of tell us to rein it in. But then he'd go back there and think about what Duane would say to him. There was more than one occasion when he'd apologize: "You guys do whatever you want. Me and my brother used to go around and around about that shit." Much in the way Duane did that for Gregg, the Colonel did that for us. You're constantly thinking, "Is your musical intention pure?"

There are so many bands and musicians who are just bullshitting you at all times, playing music that, six months ago, before they got a gig, were like, "Yeah, that band sucks." Then they get a call and a paycheck, and they're like, "This is the greatest shit you've ever heard." I'm like, "OK, that's fine."

Q: When I first heard Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1992 [with Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, Matt Mundy and Count M'Butu], I had no idea what was happening.

A: When I met the Colonel, I was 12 years old, and we opened for the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Right out of the gate, he was an immediate mentor. I remember watching that band and watching him and thinking, "I have no idea what the hell is going on." There were things you never considered, musically and otherwise. The whole vibe around that group. ... That was when [mandolin player] Matt Mundy was still in the band. It was full-bore, and the Colonel was in his full Colonel glory. He was firing on all cylinders. That was life-changing. He'd done that for Duane, too. He was doing free gigs in Piedmont Park in Atlanta before the Allman Brothers were. Hampton Grease Band was being the weird band, pushing the envelope, just doing maniacal stuff. It was the free-love hippie era, and they were the ones who were even on the outside of that. They always made everyone a little uncomfortable. That was always his thing, and he was a master at it, right to the very end. It was the Colonel in a nutshell.

Q: I've been a fan of the Tedeschi Trucks Band from the beginning, but I'll admit to not thinking it would last this long. It was too big. It felt like an experiment.

A: I knew going into it that throwing that many people together on the road was pretty insane. I knew there was a chance it wouldn't stay afloat, that we'd start taking on water and would have to keep rowing. The one thing I talked about with Susan was, if we're going to do this, we're doing it. It's not a summer tour. We're not feeling out the waters. We're going to get rid of our individual bands and we're going to cut the safety net.

We were fully aware that we were going to start it and not rely on what was working with her solo group and my solo group. We're not going to play those tunes for a while. It put a different spin on it. I think, a lot of times, when people throw side groups together and go out, you're half in it. You're not thinking long-term. I'd been in my self-titled group since I was 14 or 15. I'd never started a band as an adult, and I was ready to do it. I was ready to deal with all the shit that you have to deal with. I had a feeling that it could go for a while. You never know. It certainly exceeded our expectations.

Q: Maybe some part of you is hard-wired for long-term commitments. It's certainly a part of the tradition.

A: I think that's definitely part of it. I never planned on being in the Allman Brothers for 15 years. I have that loyalty chip. My parents are still married. They've been through thick and thin a thousand times, and they're still charging down the road. Part of me is just wired for that. My solo group was together for a solid 15 years. Hopefully that's not the cutoff: I get to 15 years, and I'm out. We've blown past that, me and Susan, our marriage, so we're good.

Q: Once the sound of a big band is in your head, is it hard to settle for something else? Do you have outlets for more nimble, small-band types of improvisation?

A: The beauty of what we're doing is that it doesn't have to be a 12-piece band at all times. There are times on stage when it gets down to just me and [bassist] Tim [Lefebvre] and [drummer] J.J. [Johnson], and everyone else just bails. You can stretch different muscles and go to different musical places. But there is something about that energy and that sound, especially with two drummers. Man, when that thing gets going, there's nothing quite like that feeling. When that locks up and everybody gets to that place at the same time, you hit these amazing peaks. A lot of times, when that's done, you have to take a deep breath. You don't realize that your breathing changes. It's intense. You can get that in a lot of different musical settings, but there's something unique about having that much firepower. The horn section will improvise sectional parts, just right in the mix. All of those things add to the feeling. It's hard to step away from that. It's a potent thing.

Q: "Live from the Fox Oakland" is terrific. Do you record all of the shows?

A: We multitracked at least the last year or so. All the shows are taped somewhere, but we really stepped it up for that tour. The gear got better. The band was in a good spot. The improvisational stuff was really firing every night. It was loose in a good way. After years of doing this, you can feel when that happens, when everyone in the band is thinking in the same realm. We wanted to capture that. It comes and goes. You're constantly trying to push forward, but it definitely will list at times. It's a big beast to keep rolling down the road. No matter how good the music is, everyone has lives, and things are always happening. Half the job of being a bandleader is ... I don't want to say you're a band therapist, but there are always things you have to work on.

Q: Who will fill in for Kofi on this tour?

A: There's a guy out in L.A. called Carey Frank, who Tim Lefebvre turned me onto. He's flying out tonight. We're in the process of relearning our whole catalog. It's not like we're a band with a set list: It's a band with, like, 60 or 70 songs. I'm curious how it will go. This is one of those times where having this big monster of a band ... everyone is going to step up. We just want to hold down the fort while Kofi is getting better. That guy is irreplaceable.

TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND performs at Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center in Simsbury on Sunday, July 9, at 6:45 p.m., with the Wood Brothers and Hot Tuna opening. Tickets are $29 to $98. manicpresents.com

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