The Derek Trucks Band, The Birchmere, Alexandria, Virginia- 4/3
I arrived at the Birchmere early Thursday evening. Immediately as I entered, my optimism for the evening increased as I heard the strains of Widespread Panic playing over the bar's PA system how many bars play Panic on their own initiative? Of course, the Birchmere isn't your typical venue. In the performing hall all patrons have seats, and are encouraged to lower their voices and turn off their cells phones it's one part dinner theater and one part sound stage. Over the years, it has hosted countless memorable performances, many made more so because of the venue's intimacy. Given that Derek's wife, Susan Tedeschi, played a gig nearby at the Lisner Auditorium the previous evening and was free for the night, I suspected that this could be one of those nights as it turns out we were not disappointed.
The concert began with "Maki Madni," adapted from the classic recording by Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, The Last Prophet. On the Derek Trucks Band’s most recent album, Joyful Noise, the group recorded the song with Ali Kahn’s nephew singing the Sufi chant, which is a growing chorus in praise of the Prophet Mohammed. Derek explained to me that eastern religions, including Sufi Islam—a sect of Islam which focuses on the mystical aspects of the religion, Buddhism, and also the writings of Lebanese Maronite poet Kahlil Gibran (for whom his child is named)— have had a great influence on him and clearly on his playing as well. Absent any vocals, Derek’s playing more than filled the void and made it clear that his work was in adulation of, and perhaps an effort to channel, something higher. Percussionist Yonrico Scott’s use of mallets instead of sticks added to the passion. At different moments, Bassist Todd Smallie echoed Derek’s melodies, as if to underscore the plaintive nature of the chant. Not to be left behind, keyboardist and flautist Kofi Burbridge not only matched Derek’s melodies but took them in different directions, and yet never lost the sight of the original theme. As the song ended, the crowd was pretty well hushed, caught in their own reflections, until Derek’s son Charlie, seated in his mother’s lap just to the side of the stage, let out a squeal of approval.
Vocalist Mike Mattison joined the band next, and sang another tune off the band’s album, "Like Anyone Else." Now, with all due respect to Solomon Burke (and ample respect is due), who sang the vocals on the Kofi-written original for the album, this song is perfectly suited for Mike’s voice. Bumping the melody up a Marvin Gaye-esque octave, Mike makes is clear that when he sings "You better think about it, baby," he means it. In fact, he was so locked into delivering his message that he continued to mouth the line even after he had backed far away from the mike. Derek explained that with Mike now a permanent part of the band, the group feels that it can write more for vocals, which will be something to look forward to on future albums.
A couple songs later, after Mike had returned and wailed through "Preachin’ Blues," the band segued into Earth, Wind & Fire’s "Everything is Everything." With local tenor sax legend Ron Holloway on stage, the band settled in a powerfully grooving backdrop for their guest, allowing him ample room to express his interpretation of the song’s lyrics: "I hear voices, I see people/ I hear voices of many people/ Talkin’ ‘bout everything is everything/ I hear music, talkin’ ‘bout love/ Everything, yeah, everything is everything." Somehow this struck me as a thought for what’s been going on in world.
The first set ended with "Pedro," a salsa tune that the DTB has sown with middle eastern seeds. Derek informed me that if the band were to add another member, he’d like to add a salsa percussionist who could also sing in Spanish. Given how Yonrico used woodblocks, congas, the triangle, the rim of his drums, a shaker of some sort, and played relentlessly, it’s scary to think where a two-man percussion section would go. The song also provided the rest of the band room to show their individual talents, with Todd using harmonics and playing as much melody as rhythm, Kofi running through Coltrane-like sheets of sound on the flute, and Derek blowing through a powerful solo to bring the set to an end.
Surprisingly, the second set improved on the first. It again began with a song from the Last Prophet, and again Derek and Yonrico’s passionate playing forced many in the crowd to simply close their eyes and absorb. Mike, who was sitting to the side of the stage smiling for the first song, returned, seemingly inspired, and showed it in Albert King’s "Down, Don’t Bother Me." After the traditional blues tune "Leavin’ Trunk," the band then turned it up again as they played admirably through Coltrane’s "Naima," "Goin’ Down Slow" (popularized in part by Derek’s other band,’ the Allman Brothers), and then returned to Trane with "Afro-Blue." With respect to the Allmans, I asked Derek what he thought would happen this summer when they were sharing the bill with Dickey Betts & the Great Southern at the Gathering of the Vibes. His answer was that he didn’t know, but he was looking forward to it. He said that he didn’t have any problems with the former Allmans’ guitarist, and in fact had recently spent a week together with Dickey, Taj Majal and Jimmy Herring.
As the band came back to earth after "Afro-Blue," Derek’s wife, Susan, made her way to the stage following Yonrico’s introduction that Susan was proof the Derek Trucks Band was not just another collection of "ugly guys" and the already upbeat stage brightened with her presence. While she beautifully sang through Paul Pena’s classic, "Gonna Move" off her most recent album, Wait for Me, it was hard to figure out what was more enjoyable her singing, Derek's playing, or Susan's non-stop smile as she let her husband's playing wash over her. Quite simply, it was a rare treat to see so much affection between two artists on stage. As the song came to an end, Derek and Susan traded lines back and forth, guitar for vocals, and it was clear that what they share as a couple and family also give them a deep understanding of where the other is going musically. The feeling continued through the encore, "Joyful Noise,' as the band took the already spirited song to another level, aided by Susan's presence and the obvious family-like atmosphere that surrounds the band. Mike and Susan extolled the audience and the band to "make a joyful noise," making the room feel akin to the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest. By the time it was over, the band, the audience, and even the usually stoic Derek himself were all smiling, almost giddy from the sheer elation of the music. Continuing the good vibe of the show, the band mingled with the crowd afterward. I had a chance to catch up with Derek again for a minute, and with a knowing grin on his face, he asked me "How'd it feel tonight?" As if he had to ask.