The ’70s was the era of the Big Family Band. Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen toured with more than 30 musicians. The Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends (with Eric Clapton), Santana, the Mothers of Invention, George Harrison’s hybrid British-Indian ensembles, Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd: they contained multitudes. They covered stages with equipment and players, rolled from venue to venue in tractor trailers like small armies, playing expansive, often bloated music.
Whether or not that model works in the 21st century remains to be seen. All but the biggest acts are kept on short financial leashes. The White Stripes, the Black Keys, Local H and others, like mobile attack squads, proved you could cover much sonic ground with little personnel. Arcade Fire, one of the first indie acts to spread out, flipped the small-band aesthetic on its head (and accepted a Best Album Grammy). But it’s still somewhat rare to see more than six musicians on stage at once.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band are the carriers of the Family-Band torch. The husband-and-wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks maintain an 11-piece roster of some of the best players around. They’ll perform a show at the Palace Theater in Waterbury on Sept. 28. Last summer, Trucks told the Advocate he thought theirs was a risky venture, but worthwhile. “We either jump and go through with it or keep doing what we are doing,” he said. “We’ve both been very happy with our solo careers.”
I reached out to Tedeschi for an update. She said the main barriers to keeping the project together are scheduling and finances. “Everybody is so talented, they have other work they can get,” Tedeschi said, speaking from a hotel room in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “A lot of the obstacles have to do with schedules. But there’s also making sure everybody is happy and keeping the creativity flowing, adding new covers, keeping it fresh... We have to work a lot just to pay everyone’s bills, especially now that we are parents... Just everyday normal little stuff can be some of the hardest things to deal with sometimes.”
The experiment has paid off. Revelator, their first studio album, won a Grammy Award for Blues Album. Rolling Stone called it a “masterpiece” and gave it four stars out of five. “Midnight in Harlem” is a modern classic, Tedeschi as Gladys Knight. It’s destined to be played as interstitial music on NPR for years. Their originals seem to arrive pre-aged, closely aligned with the music of the predecessors. They cover songs that are three decades old: Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix, the Band, many others. Partly because, well, they can.
The next logical step was to put out a double-live album. Everybody’s Talkin’ is their At Fillmore East, their Europe ’72, their Live in Japan. If it came out on LP, it would have only one or two songs per album side. History was in the room with Tedeschi and Trucks when they hatched the concept.
“Derek was thinking, ‘Let’s make a live record and not just record a live night. Let’s record a tour and really capture this band, but record it with the quality of At Fillmore East, something really classic,’” Tedeschi said. “That’s the yin and yang of records: the nice, tight, radio-appropriate versions and the expanded live versions.” Live albums jeopardize the relationship between the song and the jam so carefully balanced in the studio. It’s a high-wire act.
“A lot of thought goes into it,” Tedeschi said. “Maybe if it was the ’60s and we were all doing drugs it would be more difficult.” The audience, she said, doesn’t want to get totally lost anymore. “There is a fine line, but for the most part it’s easy to pick a band leader, and Derek is the main candidate. He’s very good at designating solos. If it seems too long or too short, we usually all agree.”
For such a large band, they strip down to a bare-bones trio pretty damn quick. Trucks’ solo on “Learn How to Love” comes straight out of Band of Gypsys territory. “Everybody’s Talkin’” is Nilsson via Stax Records, building up from the rhythm section to the full act, horns and all, an arrangement you’d expect to find on Otis Blue or The Wicked Pickett. “Uptight” ends with the spotlight on bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson. But it might as well be a Funk Brothers production for the first six minutes.
“Wade in the Water,” the final track on Everybody’s Talkin’, was recorded last October at the Klein in Bridgeport during the storm that left 2 million Connecticut residents without power for days. Tedeschi and Trucks considered canceling that show, but then people started showing up.
“Half showed up and half couldn’t make it,” Tedeschi said. “We knew it was quite a disaster. But the people who came: we weren’t going to turn them away. That was a special show. We did ‘Wade in the Water’ and said it was a prayer to make sure that people got home safe.”
Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sept. 28, 7 p.m., $33-$78, Palace Theater, 100 E. Main St., Waterbury, (203) 755-4700, manicproductions.org.