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Published: 2003/12/02
by James Newton

Derek Trucks Band, The Funk Box, Baltimore, MD- 11/22

The Funk Box is the club-formerly-known-as the 8×10, a bar which for years packed in scores of up-and-coming bands, both acts local to the Baltimore/DC area and national touring bands. Named for the compact size of its dance floor, one could always count on an intimate experience not found in many other clubs. To put it mildly, the place had a lot of character. With a major renovation and new ownership, the Funk Box has only improved on the experience, both in terms of the quality of the bands and the venue itself (including a new floor built on ball bearings akin to the Crystal Ballroom in Portland as well as a new Myers sound system).

Despite these benefits, some argue that the club still suffers from one big’ problem, and that’s the small size. While the name 8×10 is gone, that’s still a close description as to the area directly in front of the stage. But that criticism is one of attitude more than fact as there are other open places to find if you don’t want to be packed in, and, given the ever dwindling number of opportunities to be so close to a band so as, for example, to hear their stage whispers, this complaint seems wholly spurious. Moreover, because of the intimate size, even if you’re not in sight of the stage you’re still able to clearly hear the music, a bonus over many larger clubs. If the first couple of months are any indication, the club seems headed down the right path. In it for the long haul, they have taken risks for music’s sake, such as booking legend Chuck Berry for opening night, as well as booking many larger-drawing jambands in the hopes they can pack in the small space, but not so much as to alienate patrons.

Visiting the club for the first time since its opening, Trucks and the band wasted no time in getting into the thick of it, starting with an old school soul tune that gave each member a chance to showcase their skills. The band continued through tunes now familiar to them and the audience, such as "Everything is Everything" and "Gonna Move" (the DTB backs Derek’s wife, Susan Tedeschi, on a version of this Paul Pena tune for her lastest album- incidentally, she was in house this evening but disappointingly didn’t come on stage with the band). Despite the familiarity, the group continues to keep the songs fresh. This is particularly true of vocalist Mike Mattison who continues to grow into the role of frontman, exposing more of his passionate vocals with each show.

From there the band stepped out and showed why it’s one of the most diverse and interesting bands on tour. First, it sandwiched the classic Sufi Islam chant "Sahib Teri Bandi" around another that appears on the DTB album Joyful Noise, "Maki Madni." Previously, the band played the two songs, which are based on Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn’s beautiful renditions on the album The Last Prophet, as discrete pieces, but have now brought the two together into one powerful opus. With the chant-basis of the songs, the band was able to build around itself and develop various layers of sound. Percussionist Yonrico Scott set the foundation with a driving timpani-esque pulse that seemed to be coming from all around. On top of that, Bassist Todd Smallie and keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge built the next layers, alternately locking in together as if in some kind of mind meld, or taking their own musical lines and ideas in different directions. Lastly, at the summit, Trucks soared off, simultaneously maintaining the chants’ traditional themes while developing them into something all his own.

From there the band invited up the opening artist, South African musician Vusi Mahlasela, to join them. Instead of staying within the Eastern Hemiphere, however, the band moved into the Caribbean and more specifically Cuba, and pulled together a salsa tune with serious swing, reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club. During the piece, Burbridge showed his virtuosity on the flute as his solo went from salsa to jazz in a heartbeat.

Returning to the deep south, Scott laid down a shuffle beat that led from one blues into another, including one of the band’s staples, "Leaving Trunk." During this segment, which covered at least five songs, the band showed off its tightness and they took turns with solos, fills, and finishing and adding to each others lines, all without missing a beat or allowing the pace and feeling to drop off. Most enjoyably, the band turned the tables and set a solid groove over which Scott played a tuneful and funked out solo. The build through these blues tunes peeked in the classic "Goin’ Down Slow." Trucks took a fiery solo on guitar, seemingly playing fast enough for two slides at once, and pushed the band in and out of the various genre’s they had hit upon, i.e. blues, Sufi chant, jazz and salsa. At one point, Burbridge egged the crowd on, extolling that "this is dance music!" The band finally came out of the jam with its now traditional trading around of solos by four bars, then three, then two, etc., as Trucks continued at his torrid pace. Finally, this all settled nicely into the set closer with Mattison doing his best of the night on a Smokey-soul "Walk Away."

Coming back out to raucous applause, the encore did not disappoint, except in length, as the band burned through another soul tune, "For My Brother," with other members of the band lending a rare voice to Mattison’s. Fittingly, the song went from Burbridge leading on the flute to a Burbridge v. Trucks duel, and then to Trucks alone who slid the band home. Even though much of the night’s catalog has by now become familiar to at least some in the sold-out crowd, Trucks and the band exuded enough skill and fire to keep the material fresh, and with Mattison’s distinctive vocals continuing to grow, it’s clear this relatively young band has a long future in front of them.

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