It was a perfect night for campfires and clam chowder.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band fought the chill Friday evening at Jacob’s Pavilion by bundling up in jackets and scarves and sharing its soul-warming music with 2,000-plus fans on the first night of its current tour. We’re guessing a lot of folks had sniffles come Saturday—but September 13th was all about searing blues, gospel, and R&B jams courtesy the Grammy-winning ensemble.
The band, fronted by the husband-wife team of Derek Trucks (guitar) and Susan Tedeschi (vocals, guitar), boasts enough players for a baseball team—including two drummers—each of whom brought his (or her) considerable skills to bear on a two-plus hour music marathon that stirred Delta blues, horn-laden Dixie, and Confederate rock into a compelling jambalaya. Nearly every selection featured an extended solo or jam, and all were peppered with magical moments whose emotional heft testified to the band’s passion for their “work.”
Trucks enjoyed early fame as the guitar prodigy son of an Allman Brothers’ percussionist—but the ponytailed string-picker was heading up his own band by the late 1990s, his hands growing around the neck of his red Gibson SG as his musical chops matured. Tedeschi made a name for herself with a string of solo records showcasing her powerful pipes, whose rich timbre still recalls Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. The couple married not long after their careers first crossed paths and began touring together a few years later, merging their two bands under the moniker Soul Stew Revival. Their first disc as Tedeschi Trucks Band—the Jim Scott-produced Revelator—earned a Grammy for Best Blues Album.
The band offered a couple cuts from that disc (“Midnight in Harlem” and “Bound for Glory”) but preferred leaning on fresh material from this year’s excellent Made Up Mind. Both Derek and Susan wielded guitars on the first few numbers—Trucks finger-picking his Gibson and Tedeschi strumming a Stratocaster—and came out strong with “Made Up Mind,” “Do I Look Worried,” and “It’s So Heavy.” Backup singer Mike Mattison took lead vocals on the Mabel Louise Smith-penned “I Know” (as taken from Derek Trucks Band’s 2009 album, Already Free).
Tandem drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson mirrored each other’s movements throughout the program, but occasionally one stickman would add paradiddles or other percussive ornamentation while the other maintained the metronome. Oteil Burbridge manned the keyboards (Hohner and Hammond) but also delivered a poignant flute solo. Mark Rivers joined Mattison on backup vocals and harmony. The horn section—shades of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago—comprised of Saunders Sermons (trombone), Kebbi Williams (sax), and Maurice Brown (trumpet). Eric Krasno switched between 4 and 5-string basses as needed.
Trucks utilized bottleneck slide on his fretboard for most of his solos, decorating his fluid runs with string pull-offs and bluesy bends. Derek doesn’t move around much onstage, his body language instead giving the impression that he becomes one with his instrument and the sounds—both delicate and dangerous—they synthesize together. But the guitarist made frequent eye contact with his band members and would smile whenever the chemistry bordered on the transcendent. Tedeschi shivered noticeably early on but got warm and loose as the show progressed, ditching her guitar (and cute librarian glasses) and going hand-held with the microphone. Susan’s no slouch on the Strat; the vocalist nailed a couple mean, B.B. King-like solos out of the park and harmonized with her hubby’s leads in other spots.
The band coalesced on Elmore James classic “The Sky is Crying” (popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan), got funky on “Misunderstood,” and swayed for “Nobody’s Free.” Tedeschi gifted the crowd with her cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” which segued into a stompin’ “Sugaree.” Trucks dipped back into his own catalog for the energetic “Get What You Deserve” before grinding out “Bound for Glory.” Made Up Mind barnburner “The Storm” lit the fuse for an incendiary close around the eleven o’clock hour.
Jacksonville, Florida’s J.J. Grey and Mofro delivered a soulful suppertime set surveying their three most recent albums. “Hide and Seek” was plucked off the band’s 2010 disc— Georgia Warhorse—but the remainder of the program pulled from 2011’s Brighter Days and 2013’s This River. Formed over a decade ago, Mofro specializes in a unique brand of bayou rock that borrows as much from Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd as it does Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. They’re what might happen had the Blues Brothers hailed from a swamp in the south instead of Chicago.
Fronted by multi-instrumentalist Grey (whose raspy vocals recall Joe Cocker) the outfit shuffled through “This Woman,” “Tame a Wild One,” and “Your Lady (She’s Shady)” with gusto. The premature autumn chill didn’t discourage the upbeat singer, who kept warm by alternating between guitar and tambourine.
“It’s alright,” he said. “If I were home, I’d just be complaining about how hot it is!”
Andrew Trube handled lead guitar duties while rhythm section Anthony Cole (drums) and Todd Smallie (bass) pinned the bottom end. Anthony Farrell colored the music with lush chords and tasty fills on Hammond organ. Meanwhile, the “Hercules Horns” duo of Dennis Marion (trumpet) and Art Edmaiston (tenor sax) oozed Average White Band cool over “99 Shades of Crazy”and shimmied in synch to the grooves. Each Mofro musician capitalized on his brief solo spot, the fills and flourishes underscoring the wealth of talent on hand. Grey indulged in a wah-wah guitar solo at one point, then joined Farrell for a two-man keyboard jam.
Ships literally passed in the night during “Somebody Else,” as the Nautica Queen and Goodtime III motored in opposite directions down the Cuyahoga behind the stage. A brief power outage cut the PA’s as Mofro sizzled on “Hoe Cakes” (which Grey dedicated to his grandmother for her culinary skills), but Grey and company kept cooking onstage until the house speakers crackled to life again some sixty seconds later.
Grey’s country charm endeared him to the audience. He revealed between songs (and swigs of beer) that he was once an angry young man who finally “made a decision” to make every day the best day of his life.
He certainly succeeded doing so Friday in Cleveland.