Long before Derek Trucks was born, Robert Johnson used a bottleneck slide to fight the hellhounds on his Mississippi Delta trail. Bessie Smith busked for pennies outside gospel churches on the streets of Chattanooga. John Coltrane emerged like a phoenix from rural North Carolina to the divine heights of "A Love Supreme." Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bill Monroe, Aretha Franklin, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. It's undisputed that every groundbreaking musical form of the 20th century was conceived in the sweltering, racially diverse, joyous yet tragic cauldron of the American South. The 2018 Wheels of Soul tour, which came to Raleigh's Walnut Creek Amphitheatre this week, continues this legacy in a big way, presenting three unique yet distinctively Southern bands.
22-yr-old Marcus King, who hails from South Carolina, started things off with a bang, wailing on his Gibson in the tradition of his mentors, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. It takes great guitarists to recognize one of their own, and Derek is "paying it forward" by granting The Marcus King Band the opening slot on the Wheels of Soul tour. Although Marcus' vocals can sometimes sound too thin and undefined, his soulful, weighty guitar playing is undeniably good. The audience was treated to several surprises during Marcus' 30-minute run, with spontaneous detours into Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," at the end of his set.
With roots in Athens, Georgia and the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, Drive-By Truckers are one of the most lyrically provocative, and politically-charged live acts around today. Although typically at their best in smaller indoor venues, the Truckers were able to keep the audience's attention with a variety of originals from their immense catalog of Southern Gothic tales of misfits, degenerates and rock 'n' roll heroes. More recent, politically-progressive songs mixed in well, with singer Patterson Hood quoting Patti Smith, in demanding that we as humans need to "Love each other, Motherfuckers!," before launching into "What It Means."
As the sun set, the 12-piece ensemble that is the Tedeschi Trucks Band hit the stage, and immediately laid it down. Kudos to their sound crew, because the mix was excellent. Based in Jacksonville, Florida, the married team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi have distinctively different stage personalities, but complement each other perfectly. Zen master Derek, who never utters a word to the crowd, quietly confers with his rhythm section and organist Kofi Burbridge, to his right, while Susan absolutely commands the audience like the best schoolteacher you ever had, her hand gestures emphasizing critical life lessons delivered by an earth-shaking gospel-blues voice that just gets more powerful with age. The brass section and back-up singers loyally follow Susan's lead like Jehovah's favorite choir.
Whether it was "Made Up Mind," "How Blue Can You Get?," "Down in the Flood," or "Let Me Get By," The Tedeschi Trucks Band charged forward like a jam-packed freight train at full speed, 12 wheels perfectly aligned and lubricated, all loyal to the shared destination of love, redemption and togetherness. The musicians served the music, never their individual egos. And then there's Derek's guitar, which can go from raw power-riffs to the most beautifully delicate bottleneck-slide ever. The latter sometimes reminds me of the sound of a baby, sweetly crying for its mother in middle of a starry night. Everyone knows that Trucks is a devoted student of Duane Allman and Elmore James, but he's also very influenced by the ethereal Indian stylings of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. It's this combination of East and West, secular and divine, past, present and future, that makes his playing so mesmerizing.
The show came to a close with the 1-2 funk-punch of Sly & The Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" and "I Want to Take You Higher," as Marcus King and several members of his band joined in for the jams. In the middle of the two songs, the drummers and organ players stretched out, improvised, and slowed things down to a crawl for a few seconds, as Derek and Marcus traded intense blues licks. Soon, the band returned to the refrain of "Let Me Take You Higher," building to a crescendo as Susan let out the most intensely ecstatic scream I've ever heard from her. I thought all the car windows in the parking lot were going to shatter. Without a doubt, The Tedeschi Trucks Band is one of the best live ensembles in the world these days, and they just keep getting better. May the Wheels of Soul roll on forever.
Review by Alex Marsh
Photos by Willa Stein