The Tedeschi Trucks Band is back with a new, 4th studio album of their career, (Feb. 15) Signs, (Fantasy Records), in a collection of some of their most diverse material, ranging from their signature mash of blues, soul, rock, gospel, and traditional rock jams, but this time the scores are markedly more sophisticated while remaining big, brassy, and poignant. The record was produced to sonic brilliance by band co-founder and guitar whiz Derek Trucks, engineers Jim Scott, and Bobby Tis, recorded at Swamp Raga Studios in their hometown Jacksonville, Florida. The Tedeschi part belongs to Trucks’ wife Susan Tedeschi on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, together with a brass section of Kebbi Williams/saxophone, Ephraim Owens/trumpet, Elizabeth Lea/trombone, Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson/drums, Brandon Boone/bass, and vocalist/lyricists Alecia Chakour, Mark Rivers, Mike Mattison, to form one of America’s most exciting, sold-out acts; a 12-piece band of remarkable moving parts.
The band has been hit hard by personal strife over the last few years, beginning with the death of their dear friend, the legendary Gregg Allman, their mentor Col. Bruce Hampton, who collapsed on stage and died of a heart attack then and there, and to whom the album is dedicated, plus Trucks’ uncle Bruce had committed suicide earlier, and then, the day the album was released, their keyboardist Kofi Burbridge succumbed to heart failure as well.
Yet, despite all that pain and sorrow, they held together, and put together this gem of an album titled Signs, which certainly seems pointed in the right direction.
The package opens with Signs, High Times, a soulful blues number where all the vocalists chime in over a wicked Wurlitzer intro by Burbridge, a popping brass punctuation, and pointed guitar licks by Trucks; like most Americana bands these days,TTB also ventures into the political realm here, encouraging people to get off their asses and do something about the way things are heading, (think Brexit, Trump, etc.), because passivity is complicity. Track 2, I’m Gonna Be There, is a gospel piece that speaks of loving devotion, beautifully sung by Tedeschi, backed up by a light orchestral touch and Truck’s Gibson SG Standard riffing sweetly alongside guest guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. Another guest appearance is by guitar pistolero and vocalist Warren Haynes who co-writes Walk Through This Life with the then bassist Tim Lefebvre, and joins in on chorus.
Signs is a resurrection of force and tight freewheeling brassy blues/country/rock that once ruled the airwaves country-wide, but especially in the south, along with bands like the Allman Brothers, and Little Feat, or Black Oak Arkansas. Here they breathe fresh life into the style with unwavering passion, which seems to have always been their aim.
Still Your Mind contains one of Trucks’ best soaring solos on the album, that arrives after a ballad-esque opening on piano joined by Tedeschi’s soothing voice and touch on her ‘58 Gibson Les Paul Standard. From there they perform the acoustic ballad Strengthen What Remains, an ode to resilience and fighting on, and making it sound as sweet as pie with a floating flute above. The environmentally-minded Shame shows their capacity to blow things open with horns and a hard-driving melody, then slowing the pace into a reflective ecological message, “Shame, there’s poison in the well/ Shame, you know we can’t unring the bell/ Shame on you, shame on me for letting you shame us all”; an ‘earthy’, healthy reminder cloaked in an excellent arrangement of solid brass and rhythm sections, Tedeschi’s awesome voice, and Trucks’ splendid guitar work on howling solos building to a crescendo that deliciously melts into a soft angelic vocal end. Pure genius.
The track They Don’t Shine sees Tedeschi this time taking the lead guitar role on her 1970 Fender Stratocaster in a lively number reminiscent of a young Bonnie Raitt that chugs along nicely, while setting up the closer, called The Ending, an elegy dedicated to their above-mentioned mentor Col. Bruce Hampton; Tedeschi throws her heart into it singing, “Door opened up and he walked right through/ Some folks thought he was just pretending/ Telling those stories, just like they’re true/ He fell on stage with a smile on his face/ Never giving away/ The ending”. Powerful stuff.
Signs is a good sign that they've come to more mature terms with life and all it throws at you, staying true to who you are and what you want to do about it... And what they’ve done about it here, is to deliver their best studio album to date.