Words and Photos by Max Stewart
The unnerving paradox to the joys of existence is that none of us are getting out of here alive. Our time on this earth is therefore spent experiencing all the highs and lows of everyday life with our family and friends, making sure to keep those we love close and appreciated. In the case of the zen-master Col. Bruce Hampton, when he recognized an individual with a spark of inspired musical creativity, he brought him into his family circle and was always a source of help and encouragement. Three of those individuals happened to be Oliver Wood, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. On May 1, 2017, during the encore of his 70th birthday concert at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre (‘Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton’) – with Tedeschi, Trucks, Wood and many other musicians that loved him in attendance and partaking in the musical collaborations – Hampton passed away onstage. It could not have been a more poetic and almost prophetic way to go. He died surrounded by the family of musicians that were there to honor and celebrate his life.
Tedeschi Trucks Band certainly recognizes the importance of family, as the band is fronted by a married couple, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. It is also obvious that the 12-person ensemble has a familial ethos: smiles, hugs and laughs are always abounding during the band’s performances. Furthermore, in the past few years, the band has brought a couple of additional musicians along on their summer tour, further driving the kindred spirit of the communal tour. Summer 2017 was no different. Despite the tragedy that has struck in the last year, Tedeschi Trucks Band kept on trucking while letting the magic of live music work its whimsical healing powers.
When Tedeschi Trucks Band rolled their Wheels of Soul Tour with The Wood Brothers and Hot Tuna to the Fox Theater on July 15, it was their first return to the stage since Hampton’s passing. Walking in the 88-year-old venue, the spirits in the room were undeniable. Hampton fan shirts reading “GREASE” and “Zambi Army” were widespread amongst the attendees, with most everyone aware of the significance of the night.
Personally, the concert was very special to me because I got to attend the show with my 63-year-old dad, an Atlanta native who has attended hundreds of shows at the Fox Theater since high school. He even saw the Allman Brothers perform at Piedmont Park in the Sixties a few times. As soon as we walked to our seats, located in the front orchestra pit just a few feet from the stage, our jaws remained on the floor the entire night. My dad is the reason I love music and he was a big fan of Hampton, so to experience this show next to him was a family bonding moment like no other.
Family is not always necessarily defined by blood relation. Guitarist / vocalist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady seem to have an unbreakable brotherhood. Their kinship began during their tenure in Jefferson Airplane, but it has continued in their duo outfit Hot Tuna, which has been around since 1969. The stripped down versions of “Bowlegged Woman,” “Watch the North Wind Rise,” and “I See the Light” all highlighted the competence of the duo (who play with drummer Justin Guip) that shine thanks to Kaukonen and Casady’s unmistakable mastery of their instruments.
The Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood absolutely nailed the sentiment of the evening when he stepped on the storied Fox Theater stage: “It feels like church.” The Jazz meets Americana meets Bluegrass meets Rootsy Swing sound of the Wood Brothers is the perfect antidote of joy and introspection in a live environment. The family arc here is clear cut: Oliver Wood’s brother Chris Wood plays upright bass and sings background vocals while Jano Rix provides percussive duties (drums, as well as a variety of other instruments including the ‘Shuitar’).
“Heavy and monumental feeling playing at this venue tonight,” Wood said to a theater full of ‘Bruuuuuce’ chants honoring the late Hampton. The twangy “Snake Eyes” and light-hearted tale of a night of excess, “I Got Loaded,” were both high energy moments before Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi sat in for a profound version of “Never and Always.”
“There are some spirits in here, I can feel it,” Oliver Wood said, in recognition of the cosmic energy of the Colonel in the building.
“It’s a huge celebration and we’re gonna try to continue it right now. We send this one out to Bruce,” He said, as the band went into the emotive “Postcards From Hell,” the most heart-wrenching tune of their show. The Wood Brothers wrapped things up with sing-along “Luckiest Man,” making the 4,600 capacity theater feel like a campfire. “Thank you, Bruce. We miss you,” Oliver Wood passionately declared in a message to the heavens.
As Tedeschi Trucks Band took the stage, the best way to describe it was joyously-reserved. As Trucks stood in the same spot where Hampton passed, the eeriness was obvious, but there was a tangible comfort knowing Hampton was very much alive in the music being played that night. In fact, there was a colored guitar case that Oliver Wood gifted to Derek Trucks with Hampton painted on the side that was on full display throughout the set.
It hasn’t been an easy year for Tedeschi and Trucks. In addition to the passing of Bruce Hampton, the past nine months has seen the deaths of founding Allman Brothers Band members Butch Trucks (also Derek’s uncle) & Gregg Allman, as well as another friend of theirs in the music community, Leon Russell. To make matters even scarier, TTB member Kofi Burbridge had a near-fatal heart attack in June, but luckily all signs point to him being on the mend (he was recovering in his hometown Atlanta during the July show). Phew.
Tedeschi and Trucks are a source of inspiration as they have kept their chins up during trying times, looking onward and upward with positivity and hope. Additionally, if you are in a rut and looking for a concert that will uplift the soul and bring a revival to your psyche, Tedeschi Trucks Band is that show. The power of the band’s sound is a sonic remedy in itself: an endorphin-inducing, euphoric live experience. Tedeschi Trucks Band’s ability to take live music fans to a place of spine-tingling bliss is a product of Tedeschi’s soulfully-sweet vocals, Trucks’ other-worldly slide guitar acumen, and a group of equally-gifted musicians keeping everything afloat. The 12-piece band in essence produces a sacred ‘wall of sound’, avoiding moments of cacophony while keeping space in the music so it breathes with ease.
The precision of the large ensemble was on full-display in opener, “I Want More,” with Tedeschi’s vocals carrying the band to wondrous peaks that continued to soar on Let Me Get By’s “Don’t Know What It Means.” Harmony vocalists Mark Rivers, Mike Mattison, and Alecia Chakour blend with smooth precision alongside Tedeschi for a harmonization that is unique but always accessible.
A rousing cover of Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep On Growing” segued into “Midnight in Harlem” thanks to a chilling version of Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha.” At this moment, the souls of Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman entered the back door of the historic venue. Tedeschi and Trucks were both fighting back tears during the superb instrumental section of “Midnight in Harlem,” while at the same time letting the sacred enormity of the night take the wheel.
My dad’s deep devotion to quality music is the reason I have such a deep-rooted passion myself, and we have actually bonded in recent years over Derek Trucks’ guitar tenacity. For us to be able to witness him attack his Gibson SG from roughly 12 feet away from our seats was the coolest single thing we have done together, and something that we will never forget. I often judge how good a concert is based on how many times I get chills (two or three times is a sign of a superb show), and it was well over ten times that night in June… Family, again, was a big part of this. The music was obviously excellent, but experiencing it with loved ones can really elevate the soul to new levels and bring people even closer together.
Hot Tuna returned to the stage for a hard-hitting cover of Elmore James’ blues classic, “The Sky Is Crying.” The collaborations continued when the Wood Brothers and Atlanta guitarist Tinsley Ellis (who also attended the “Hampton 70” Celebration) packed the stage for electrifying versions of “Have You No Shame” and Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia.” Wood and Tedeschi’s signature vocal styles complement one another as they intertwined and echoed through the corners of the Fox. As Oliver Wood, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi shared smiles and moments of sincerity during “Sweet Virginia,” I could again feel the family in the room unified by the presence of Hampton.
Mattison’s gravelly yet wide-ranging vocals were showcased during “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free),” a song he also sang on The Derek Trucks Band’s 2006 album, Songlines. The R&B, horn-heavy “I Pity the Fool” shined brightly thanks to Tedeschi’s heartfelt vocals and the brass section consisting of Kebbi Williams (Saxophone), Elizabeth Lea (Trombone), Ephraim Owens (Trumpet).
Trucks’ gritty guitar riff of “The Storm” works so well thanks to the backbone of bassist Tim Lefebvre’s always-reliable groove (Fun Fact: Lefebvre played bass on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar). The main set ended with a portion of Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post,” with dual drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson honorably making sure the trail blazed by Allman Brothers Band drummers, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, was kept clear.
The encore opened with Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” sung solo by Tedeschi with fill-in pianist Carey Frank. “Leon [Russell] passed away not long ago, and Gregory [Allman].. And Butch [Trucks]. It’s been a crazy year. Kofi [Burbridge] is doing a lot better, he’s healing up, thank god. It’s a little relief in our lives. He’s gonna heal up and he gives us inspiration. Thank you to all the amazing people that have come before us, they have given us so much inspiration. We’re gonna send this one out to Kofi. Gonna start thinking positive and moving forward.” Right on, Susan.
The set ended with a very fitting “Don’t Cry No More,” followed by a sincere and sanctified “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Trucks’ guitar parts on “Unbroken” felt like rays of sunshine coming in after a torrential storm has passed. “Can you feel it? Glory bound,” Tedeschi confessed during the optimistic final chapter of the night, “Bound For Glory.” These two are the real power couple in music, they have endured so much but continue to lead a large band with elation and positivity. They should be the ones we see on T.V. and in People Magazine on a weekly basis, making headlines for all of the good vibes that they bring to the world.
Tedeschi Trucks Band is the most uplifting spiritual concert one can experience live. The audience is on a train conducted by Tedeschi and Trucks with the cogs of the locomotive being the musical ingenuity of such a talented band. More specifically, the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s show at Atlanta’s Fox Theater was nothing short of a religious experience, a heartfelt return to holy ground where the Col. Hampton moved onto to the next realm. Alongside my dad, I was most definitely taken to another place on the wings of this collective musical unit. I concur with Oliver Wood, this Saturday night in July genuinely felt like going to church.
The Wheels of Soul Tour’s courageous return to the Fox Theater is proof that family and music will keep us together in times of trouble. Sure, none of us are getting out of this world alive, but we must treasure the moments we have with the ones we love and just know that the music will always be there.