Live at Georgia Theater – Derek Trucks Band
Columbia Records 92598
Step aside, cowboy, the hype is true and the fix is in: Derek Trucks really is the shit. Easily the most emotionally expressive guitarist currently circulating as name talent on the jamband scene, Trucks has done well to avoid the post-child star burnout that easily could have resulted from his teenage apprenticeship with the Allman Brothers Band. Incredibly tasteful, Trucks is modest (his playing is, at least; I've never met the fella), perhaps to a fault. It's his defining characteristic and it's all over his band's Live at Georgia Theatre double disc.
Despite the fact that Trucks lends his name to the outfit, the music here goes to great lengths to prove that they are, in fact, a band. And they are, in fact, a band. The sense of interplay between them is palpable on numbers like the carefully synchronized "Sonido Alegre." Trucks isn’t the frontman either — that’s vocalist Mike Mattison. But, sometimes, they overcompensate, such as on the 10-minute "Angola," giving solos to every player. Trucks’ doesn’t begin until the eight-minute mark. When it does, it’s a flurry of notes, bends mixing with glassy slides, and an unpredictable melody bursting with mournfully sweet note clusters. A minute-and-a-half later, the band is back in the song’s head. Quite frankly: Derek Trucks is the reason to listen to the Derek Trucks Band and (on this cut, anyway), out of 10 minutes of music, there’s about a minute-and-a-half of him. There’s not a very good ratio.
Trucks wants to be just another band member. But he's not. He's the leader. His restraint is perhaps his most bogglingly amazing trait, especially given his line of work (as the leader of a jamband and/or a modern-day guitar hero). His main voice is still derived basically from Duane Allman, but his playing yearns to break free. On "For My Brother," which opens the second disc, Trucks blows through a set of John Coltrane-like figures, resolving them into a typically screaming finale. Coltrane is an influence throughout, most wonderfully during Trucks' more free moments (such as the first third of "Sonido Alegre" and Soul Serenade’s take on "Afro Blue"). Trucks hints at formless music – like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – that transcends rhythm and enters into a space of pure beauty.
But he doesn't stay there. The song's structures and the band's grooves don't allow it. The band slips back into generic jazz-funk too often, and it's a pleasure to listen to Trucks ride atop it all, but – well… it gets close to one of the fundamental questions of jambandom: is it better to hint at something or to embrace it full on? Many bands (Phish and Trucks' Georgia forebears, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, for example) have played traditional bluegrass songs, but do so mostly with electric instruments and driving rock rhythms. It demonstrates an affinity for bluegrass without actually committing to it. Trucks does that, too: hinting at free jazz without surrendering the climactic jamband guitar solo that makes his music accessible to many audiences.
This, in turn, skirts another way to phrase the same question: is it better to be understandable or oblique? To use the same bands as an example: In the early '90s, both Phish and the A.R.U. sounded like bands capable of playing far more intellectually rigorous music, but challenged themselves by seeing how danceable and friendly and open they could make it (which is really to say that they went looking for an audience) (and is also to say that Derek Trucks undoubtedly would maintain a larger following if he continued to play music with a strong, danceable, rhythmic element as opposed to focusing on abstraction). But oh wouldn't it be nice?
There's nothing wrong with any of the music Trucks and company make on Live at Georgia Theatre. In fact, there’s quite a lot about it that’s right. But Trucks stands on the precipice of playing music that is gorgeous from the moment he steps on stage, and it’s clearly his choice not to take that step. Hopefully, this modesty won’t be his undoing. In small doses, it’s wonderful. Trucks is a restrained soloist. Unlike Robert Randolph, who brandishes his slide as a prop (and his swooping crescendos as a gimmick), Trucks is about control, and he looks for his universes in very careful places. They’re there, too, deep in Trucks’ microtonal vibrato. Hopefully, he will learn to control his humility as such.