For my 60th birthday last month, my middle son and his girlfriend took me to the Dead & Co. opening night at Charlotte’s PNC Amphitheater. Turn about being fair play and, with no regifting involved, I took them to hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the North Carolina Music Factory for her birthday.
The Music Factory, now rebranded with the name of some software company located nearby, is more of a music compound with several music venues, bars, restaurants and a comedy club clustered together in what used to be a dilapidated part of town. The small amphitheater seats a few thousand and is just the right size for tours that don’t need a giant stadium and prefer being outdoors.
First, let me say that “world’s greatest cover band” is not meant to be a dig or a slam in any manner. I have seen Derek Trucks many times with his own band, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and now with his incredibly talented wife, Susan Tedeschi. Derek Trucks, without question, is one of the finest musicians I have been privileged to see and his band is superb. So, when they cover a song, it is a tribute by some amazing musicians which not only honors a song and its writer but extends it to a new level. To say they are the world’s greatest cover band is not a pejorative, but high praise.
Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi are not just musicians but historians, song collectors, and musicologists who thrive on iconic music and respect the craft of those who came before them. In previous tours, they have brought new life to forgotten songs such as Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” and Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything is Alright).” While both have written some fine music of their own, of the fourteen songs they played, ten were covers. They opened with David Bowie’s “It Ain’t Easy,” and the evening soon turned into a celebratory wake for many of the greats. After their own “Don’t Know What It Means,” they followed with a raucous “The Letter,” that brought back great memories for me. In 1970, Joe Cocker and his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour came through Chapel Hill during the annual Jubilee concert that preceded final exams. It was held in the football stadium and, at that time, it had no lights other than those brought in to illuminate the stage. So, under cover of darkness, several of my hoodlum friends and I squeezed our skinny, adolescent torsos through a gap in the south fence and sneaked into the concert. We knew who Joe Cocker was and had heard about this mystical band comprised of over 20 people, several of whom would soon form the core of Derek and the Dominos once the exhausting tour was finished. With perhaps two degrees of separation, Derek Trucks takes his name from that short-lived band.
Cocker and his band kept a BB King-like schedule by performing 48 shows in 52 days. We likely saw them near the end of the tour and Cocker was drinking heavily. One of my friends worked his way up to the edge of the stage to get a good look and noted that Joe was drinking straight gin from the bottle. At one point, he paused mid-phrase to vomit off the side of the stage. With such an entourage of musicians, nobody really noticed he had stopped singing and then he gathered himself, took another swig, and continued.
Susan Tedeschi likely does not even drink, but she and her band were able to recreate the raw power of a spastic, drunken Joe Cocker 46 years ago. Tedeschi’s horn section drove the song to the edge with precision and punch just as Bobby Keys and Jim Price had. When I listen to Tedeschi, sometimes I hear a less southern Bonnie Bramlett. Or, she can sound like Janis Joplin, but with a sweetness to the edge and without the angst of someone who had a pair of vice grips squeezing her soul. But, mostly she reminds me of a very young Bonnie Raitt when she cut her debut album. There is true joy in her singing and a deep respect for those she emulates.
Frank Sinatra called George Harrison’s “Something” one of the greatest love songs ever written. Ratcheting it down several notches, Tedeschi again proved her adulation with a beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ standard which created a perfect segue into another Harrison song. Derek again showed what a remarkable technician he is by replicating the sitar on his Gibson SG for “Within You Without you” for a duet with Susan. For a few moments, they became one, performing perfect glissandos with guitar and voice woven into a dream-like serenade. It was as if they were taking their wedding vows, the promise to become one with each other and one with their music. Who attempts to play anything from Sgt. Pepper live? It is a fool’s errand, but they were sublime, it nearly brought me to tears, just an incredible tribute to George Harrison.
Things got quiet and there seemed to be a little confusion on the stage. The taciturn Trucks stepped away while Tedeschi announced a very special guest: Gregg Allman. The crowd roared while Luther Dickinson from opening act North Mississippi All-Stars also took the stage and Derek helped the avuncular Allman over to the organ. My son yelled out a sarcastic “Whipping Post” and then Trucks launched into “One Way Out.” It was a little ragged at first as Gregg was not completely miked up and his phrasing was a tad off, but soon it clicked. At the break, everybody looked to Trucks to solo but he kept playing the rhythm and finally pointed to Tedeschi. Clearly, none of this had been rehearsed. Susan laughed and after a quick Dickie Betts impersonation, Trucks took over and wailed on a song that must be second nature to him after touring with the ABB for so many years. Gregg finished with a long, bluesy denial that he just could not, would not, go out that front door while the audience howled with delight. He sounded great. Gregg was in town to play with Peter Frampton the next night and Tedeschi was quick to encourage everyone to come back.
Los Lobos is also touring with Tedeschi Trucks and Susan had joined them in their set for a delightful crooning of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The effect on the women in the audience was palpable and then Derek also came out to join them, greeted by David Hidalgo’s grinning introduction, “oh, here comes trouble.” Later Hidalgo came back to join Tedeschi Trucks for “Keep on Growing,” yet another homage to 1970 and some of the greatest music ever made. Susan made a point of saying Los Lobos was an American treasure and they were going to start a write-in campaign to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given some of the recent inductees to the Cleveland hall, Los Lobos certainly seems worthy. But, they were never mainstream enough to get the airplay needed to attract big audiences. I also firmly believe that Roger Maris should be in the baseball hall of fame for being one of the kindest, must humble gentleman to ever play the game, but both halls are all about numbers. So, it is likely that neither Los Lobos nor Maris will ever get the recognition they deserve.
It was great to see all three bands interact and share the stage. They clearly are not touring together for the money but for the sheer enjoyment of playing together. How refreshing.
More covers followed with somewhat obscure songs from George Jones, Titus Turner and Bobby “Blue” Bland, pulled deep from the catalogues Tedeschi Trucks thrive on.
They closed with another flashback to the Mad Dogs and Englishman tour with the Coasters, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” The original song was more about drinking than smoking and Cocker likely took it to heart each time they played it in 1970.
Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Bobby Keys, Carl Radle, Joe Cocker, George Jones, may they all rest in peace, safe with the certainty their music will live forever. And may Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi continue their recreations of some of the greatest music ever made.
1. It Ain’t Easy
(David Bowie cover)
2. Don’t Know What It Means
3. The Letter
(Joe Cocker cover)
4. Keep On Growing
(Derek and the Dominos cover)
(The Tape-beatles cover)
6. Within You Without You
(The Beatles cover)
7. Just As Strange
8. One Way Out (with Gregg Allman)
(The Allman Brothers Band cover)
9. Color of the Blues
(George Jones cover)
10. I Want More
11. Let Me Get By
12. That Did It
(Bobby “Blue” Bland cover)
13. Sticks and Stones
(Titus Turner cover)
14. Let’s Go Get Stoned