There were moments, Derek Trucks admits, that he wondered how Tedeschi Trucks Band—the electrifying 12-piece Southern roots outfit he leads with his wife, powerhouse blues vocalist Susan Tedeschi—could continue. In February, the band’s keyboardist/flute player Kofi Burbridge passed away after battling heart disease, and a couple months prior, longstanding bassist Tim Lefebvre had left the group to pursue other projects. Two years earlier, Trucks, a former member of the Allman Brothers Band, also lost his uncle, ABB’s drummer Butch Trucks, and the band’s leader, Gregg Allman, who both died in 2017. Ultimately, the ace guitarist, who’s also toured with Eric Clapton, persevered: “The only way we know how to deal with things like this is to play through it,” Trucks says, during a recent phone chat from his home in Jacksonville, Florida.
On February 15, the same day Burbridge died, Tedeschi Trucks released its fourth studio album, Signs, a dynamic roots-driven effort shadowed by grief. The group had also just finished headlining its fifth straight Wheels of Soul Tour, an amphitheater trek featuring a rotating cast of like-minded artists. This weekend, the band tops the bill on Saturday night at Lockn’, where they will be joined by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who in kind will welcome Trucks for a set with his solo band on Friday.
C-VILLE Weekly: You just finished Wheel of Souls for the fifth straight year. What do you enjoy about the collaborative tour?
DT: It’s good for the band to see how others operate. When you go out for six weeks, you really get to know people. The first few years it was mainly people we were really familiar with—Doyle Bramhall, a close friend, and Los Lobos. This year I didn’t know the Blackberry Smoke guys or Shovels & Rope very well, so before we started the tour in Jacksonville we had a big cookout at the house. We ended up having great chemistry. There was zero drama, which is usually impossible with 60 people on the road for that long. The sit-ins were really good, and I think we made some lifelong friends.
Signs, understandably, has heavy- hearted moments that address your recent losses. Has playing the songs live this summer helped with the healing?
We got ultimately tested the day the record came out, which is the day Kofi passed away. That’s the closest we ever came to canceling a gig. Playing has been super therapeutic and cathartic, but also really hard. There are certain tunes, every single night, where I’ll remember a part that he wrote or not hear his flute in a certain place, and then it really hits hard. You can hear it in the whole band, and notice when someone on stage is having a Kofi moment.
For such a large unit, the band sounds really unified on the record, and you and Susan give the other members moments to shine. After a decade, has it gotten easier to figure out how to showcase your deep talent pool?
It gets easier, but then it gets harder, when you lose someone. When Kofi got sick, [keyboardist] Gabe Dixon stepped in with a beautiful mindset, and the band had to mentally recommit, and everybody pulled really tight together. It’s shocked me how far the band has come this quickly and how healthy it feels, musically. Everyone is digging a hell of a lot deeper, because there’s a new sense of purpose.
Is there anything you learned playing with Gregg Allman or Eric Clapton that you apply to your role as a bandleader?
I’ve learned that if there’s anything keeping the engine from running clean, you have to confront it and clear the air. Things don’t have to be perfect personally, but if you’re not in it for each other, there are hang-ups that prevent you from exploring and playing your best shit. You have to create a space where people feel comfortable. In this band when something doesn’t feel right we wear it on our sleeves, and that makes it easier to fix.
You’ve become regulars on the Lockn’ lineup. What keeps bringing you back?
At first it was the family reunion vibe—running into Phil Lesh, Jimmy Herring, and my brother (Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic). We don’t do a ton of festivals on purpose, but familiar faces always made this one feel good. Then when we did Mad Dogs with Leon, and that was just a magical few days; it was a heavy lift to learn all that material, but it was one of those collaborations that exceeded expectations and really felt like it mattered. I heard from a lot of people that it was an important reconnection for Leon, since it was near the end, and it felt good for us to be a part of history being passed down. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the festival.
And this year you’ll be swapping sit-ins with Trey Anastasio. What do you admire about his guitar playing?
Trey is a really thoughtful player, and he listens. I like playing when you get to a place when you’re thinking intelligently, almost like working on a puzzle, and Trey is great at finding those places. I’m looking forward to finding that space, where the playing almost has a playful dialogue. There are a lot of good ideas bouncing around, and everybody on both sides thinks this is going to be really fun.