Derek Trucks Band, Sticky Fingerz Chicken Shack, Little Rock, AR- 10/9
Derek Trucks’ live performances can be unsettling. His disposition onstage possesses an almost alarming equanimity. He plays the guitar with as much ostensible effort as I imagine he puts into salting a pair of scrambled eggs, drenching the accompanying hash-browns with ketchup (I’ve seen him, dressed in a long sleeve flannel covering an undershirt, play a two-hour set inside a muggy club and not break a sweat.) But when I picture Derek Trucks eating breakfastsay, with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, or band mates Kofi Burbridge and Yonrico ScottI have to believe that there is (more often than not) laughter accompanying it: a looseness of spirit that allows his mouth to curl, like an isolated grilled potato strip, in a smile and release a possibly awkward-sounding, definably idiosyncratic chortle, for all those within earshot to hear.
Last night, the Derek Trucks Band stopped by Sticky Fingerz’ Chicken Shack, near the riverfront in Little Rock, and played a two-hour set torrid enough to dry the hair and clothes of the fans who came in out of the October rain to enjoy the show. Supporting a new release, Joyful Sound, the band spent nearly half of the evening performing its tracks. The quintet started the night off boldly with an instrumental rendition of the entrancing, eastern-infused “Maki Madni” and then progressed into “Kam-Ma-Lay,” which allowed the group to show off Mike Madison, its doughy-faced new vocalist. Madison possesses an impressive range (able to sing falsetto in songs such as “Like Anyone Else” as well as bring the bluesy growl on tracks like “Home in Your Heart”, “Ain’t That Loving You” and “Everything is Everything”), although he hasn’t quite figured out what to do with himself during the jams if he isn’t holding a cowbell or tambourine (which he should do more often).
Madison’s awkwardness mirrors Derek’s own diffidence. In song after song, the guitarist lets forth solo after impassioned, gut-wrenching solo, but hardly even acknowledges the presence of the crowd, as if we’re witnessing a garage rehearsal. This is in stark contrast with the other members of the band. Rotating between keyboards and flute, Kofi exudes a drowsy sensuality; he winks at the ladies in the front row during an organ solo in “Every Good Boy” and speaks occasionally to the crowd. Bassist Todd Smallie, who adds the occasional harmony vocal and does a wonderful job keeping solid the foundation of the groove, seems to approach every moment onstage with enthusiasm. Yonricoarms flailing wildly at 180%, mouth nearly always open, suggesting continual surprise at his limbs’ ability to do such phenomenal thingswins the award for band member most resembling a father attempting, through facial contortions, to get his infant daughter to smile at him, only to scare the baby in the process.
As Derek lays into the show-closing “Cissy StrutLively Up Yourself,” I wonder if his restrained stage presence is just a case of shyness, the ironic result of putting a fifteen year-old front and center in a rock band, and letting him stay there for the rest of his life. It may sound stereotypical but perhaps Derek is encumbered by some Atlas-like load, the load of being able to play the blues without having had to live the blues.
But, of course, Derek doesn’t just play the blues. He’s comfortable jamming on everything: not just Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James but also the Meters, Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Ravi Shankar. He’s a versatile player, and his band is a tight, fun, multi-faceted unit with a soulfulness that is barren in the music of many “jambands.” And when he does play the blues he does so because he grew up listening to and loving it, and has such a tremendous respect for all the top-notch blues guitarist of the past century. However, blues is by no means the only style he loves to play. There is much, much more to hear even if there’s not that much to watch.