It was a sunny, slightly crisp, brightly polished early October morning in Long Island, NY and Susan Tedeschi was sitting in the passenger seat of my Subaru. We were driving to get coffee. It wasn’t planned out that way it simply happened after an impromptu run in only moments before, at the hotel elevator. Prior to our run in I had rolled out of bed, groaned at the slight hangover that seemed to high-five my waking moment, threw on some street clothes and slept-walked out of my dark hotel room toward the elevator, down the hall. I didn’t even take a side-glance in a mirror. I knew what I looked like, and I needed coffee.
Praying I wouldn’t run into anyone as I turned the corner to the elevators, the first blinding ray of sunlight to befall me fell simultaneously with my run in with Susan. A meeting with someone who wasn’t serving me coffee, let alone Susan Tedeschi, was not what I was prepared for. Still, it felt very fitting that it happened this way because Susan is just like sunshine, and not for obvious hair color reasons. She is light, and happy and a genuinely warm person without a hint of pretense. The sun also happens to be the icon used for the band she and husband Derek Trucks have formed, the Grammy nominated Tedeschi Trucks band, an 11-piece ensemble bursting at the seams with talent. Symbolism abound.
Regardless, I wasn’t thinking romantic metaphors while we rode the elevator together. I was simply praying for life to slap itself into me while Susan chatted away like it was just another catch up, as if we do this every day. She was escaping her hotel room, while Derek was on an early morning telephone interview, and had nowhere to go but the downstairs lobby. With nothing else to do and in a seamless, very natural transition, she was in my passenger seat riding with me to get coffee. When she casually mentioned she was grateful for the female company, I responded that it must be difficult being amongst so much testosterone. Without hesitating she replied “No, not really” and then continued “I work with an incredible group of guys. They are so talented and funny and intelligent. It’s just an amazing group of people to be a part of, I have so much fun.”
She then leaned over, in another flawless transition of conversation, and shared the recent video of her son pitching in his baseball game, sent to her that morning. He doesn’t usually pitch and she was extremely proud and I was extremely touched that she openly shared this with me.
I mention this encounter because it’s very telling of who Susan and the people she and Derek chose to surround themselves with are; friendly, real and embracing. If you’ve ever watched, or read any interviews with Susan and Derek, or the band, they talk a lot about the family dynamic that exists amongst them. Achieving this dynamic, however, takes the right kind of people not simply universal luck. Truth is, I could have had my best friend next to me in the car that morning and the only difference would have been that my best friend has seen me in this state more times than I like to confess. Susan embraces you and she doesn’t care if you’re hung-over or not, she just cares that you’re being you.
Considering I was sharing an intimate space with Susan and the band for a week, this was a relief.
This was the first day of my week traveling with the Tedeschi Trucks band. I had met the band months prior through a work engagement and we had stayed in touch ever since. Last fall, an opportunity presented itself to travel with them during the tour while they were recording their shows for the upcoming live version of their album, Revelator. I’d be lying if I wasn’t slightly apprehensive about the week of travel, and the intimate space I would share with such a tight knit group of people. Additionally, what was this rock and roll lifestyle all about anyway? Could I really handle the sex, drugs and debauchery that all my Rolling Stone articles lead me to believe I’d be engaging in while on tour with a band? (I am feigning innocence here – of course I could!)
The tour started in Long Island where their home for the few days before the Tilles Center show was at the Crowne Plaza located somewhere on Stripmallville Street, Greenvale. A vast, vapid stretch of concrete lined with a paint by numbers scene; chain retail stores, discount liquors, Starbucks (of course) and a general feeling of homogeny, cultural inertia and ‘this could be anywhere USA’ un-originality. I would come to find out that this is the common terrain of life on the road for these folks. No one complained of course, they’re used to this.
After the show in Long Island we traveled up to Lynn, MA then to Buffalo, NY, over to Burlington, VT, Albany, NY and then Newark, NJ all in 7 days (I left them in Jersey and from here they had another 10 days to go.) The days were short and the nights were long. Each morning, having driven through the night after the show to the next destination, we woke on the bus, parked on the side of the road, proceeded to take our stuff off the bus and wait for a hotel room. Hopefully managed to get time for a shower and find some good food, before we were back on another bus and off to the venue. Back inside, sunlight gone.
The bands “8” hours of work usually begins at 3pm (travel to sound check) and finish at 11pm (end of show) and then, as is the same for most of us – the post work day wind down. However, before these folks get to actually relax there is the flurry of post-show activity which usually involves time with some fans who have found their way to the back of the venue, the crew have to load in the equipment, a late night dinner of pizza or Chinese take-out (depending on the town and availability of food) and a lot of waiting. Then, it’s off to the next venue between 1 and 2am. Then, wake up on the bus, parked on the side of the road and…..it is Ground-Hog’s Day for these folks, just as it is for those of us who engage in a work-day during the daylight hours.
The bus is quite the nerve center, carrying the band from gig to gig. A warmly lit space, it is their sleeping quarters, their living room, their respite from a stark backstage auditorium or, depending on the city they’re in, their entertainment area. Navigating around close quarters filled with broad shouldered men mostly involves a lot of “side-walking” to get from the front to the back of the bus. Since the lay out is of a long corridor lined with (in respective order from front to back) sofa’s (banquet style), the kitchen, a small bathroom and then bunks, you can really only go in a linear direction.
Once on the road, some members slip into their bunk very shortly after the journey begins and others, unable to shake the natural momentum stay up chatting and listening to music. Stories are carved out over drinks around the small, card sized table that can squeeze in (maybe) four people, music is being shared, laughter is abundant and the spirit is a collective effort. And then slowly, one by one, each member takes to their bunk eventually.
The Tedeschi Trucks band is like a complete puzzle in that like a puzzle, every single person in this traveling ensemble holds a vital piece and is considered such. The bus driver, the lighting technician, the sound guy, the instrument tech, the manager and assistant manager, and Derek’s dad – they’re the Tedeschi Trucks band too; they are also the music makers. Truly, while all personalities are shaped completely different, together they work. It’s a big enough group where at any time one can be entertained by a different personality and with that there is also the risk of being lost but in this band, in this family, no one will lose you.
A friend once heard an interview with Derek where he said “it’s not a conversation unless something is revealed.” That quote stayed with me as I watched, night after night, each member of the band engage in a musical conversation on stage and reveal themselves in their most authentic way. They don’t have a ‘stage’ personality, they are really being themselves.
Susan Tedeschi sings from her heart, anyone who has seen her perform knows that, but she lives from there too. An eminent figure in the world of blues and soul, she can belt out a song with an intensity that takes your breath away and then step off the stage and beam a smile your way, embrace you with a hug and the sweetest sounding “Heeyyyy!!” as if she were just waiting for you to arrive. There is a natural giddiness to Susan that is infectious, and she has a sense of humor that can match any guy on that bus. She is also very caring and considerate and remembers little details from casual conversations.
Derek Trucks is also funny, but more in his observations of the world around him. He tells a great story in person, as he does with his guitar. He is intelligent and thoughtful and witty and he seems to embrace things at a casual pace; just like you see him do on stage. He never appeared to stray too far from that temperament, which is comforting. I was often struck by his intense focus for the project that they are all creating as he sat listening to the fresh recording of each night’s show, as soon as it was available, taking notes and hearing nuances that weren’t so obvious on stage. The entire band would eventually migrate to listening to the recordings and share their own observations.
Both Derek and Susan and all the members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band carry with them a great sense of humility about their talents and the world that they are immersed in. What struck me was how they told stories of the world that they are in, the world of ‘celebrity’, as if they were mere observers, as if they weren’t celebrities themselves (which they genuinely don’t consider themselves to be – thank goodness!). When a few of us decided to head into NYC from New Jersey on a day off it wasn’t a private car or a taxi we took. It was the bus…NJ transit no less! Standing on the side of a busy road having missed the first bus, there was Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks (just voted by Rolling Stone magazine as the 16th best guitarist in the world!), world renowned, Grammy award winning musicians on a windy late afternoon in the cold waiting patiently for the next bus to arrive. Wait, where was that debauchery and reckless disregard for social norms I was expecting (did I also mention the stretch hummers and Cristal)? Guess I had been reading about P. Diddy!
Turns out the Tedeschi Trucks band don’t always have time for a lot of debauchery and, reckless disregard for social norms isn’t this group’s personality (neither are showy displays of excess). They have their own fun, for sure, but not at the expense of those around them (unless you hand them your CD of really bad music, then you’re just asking to be mocked. JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell it seems will play that CD over and over again, learn the words verbatim to reference at opportune moments and add dance routines to boot!).
Actually, one of the first conversations I had with Oteil Burbridge was about the Bhagavad Gita, (the sacred yogic text) which he had read years prior, and yoga (since he has a regular yoga practice). He is deeply passionate about social causes and the goodness of life. Not so different to whom you see on stage, smiling and basking in the goodness of music on his bass guitar and the good company he shares on stage.
His brother Kofi, who is a perfect juxtaposition to Oteil, has that talent of being understated in his efforts but lands precisely on what he wants to know, or share. He is fluid in conversation, just as he is on the keys and the flute. The two brothers were often spending time together, in laughter or conversation but always managed to stay part of the group. It’s the same way they interact on stage, next to each other, almost in a private conversation as they gesture to one another, but still part of the larger collective.
Maurice Brown loves to perform and it’s obvious as he moves on stage from beginning to end of each show with an effervescence that might be reserved for an excited child. He is generally pretty excited about music. Off stage, if he wasn’t with headphones on or behind his laptop mixing music he was enthusiastically sharing the music he was creating and producing, with others. Kebbi Williams, on the other hand, glides. On and off the stage, in and out of conversations, Kebbi observes and participates with ease and exudes a quiet but self-confident disposition whether he is on the saxophone or behind the drums on the cowbell. Off stage, he was often doing his own thing before or after a show, but always managed to appear when needed without fanfare or a big announcement.
Saunders Sermon, the dapper and well-dressed trombone player who is just as cool and collected off stage as he is on, exudes charm and charisma but is spontaneous too. On a few occasions I saw him casually walk off stage during a set and, once behind the curtain, break out into dance. He has a sultry, seductive singing voice that had not been heard in many of the other shows until Derek, one night, gestured to Saunders that his ‘solo’ was up. Saunders, without missing a beat, stepped right into it and caressed the audience.
Mike Mattison played two shows each night, first as the front man for the supporting act, Scrapomatic and then as back-up singer for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. He does both without ever seeming tired (Tyler Greenwell, did the same on drums). In fact his manner and disposition on stage, like you’d imagine him happily hanging out in his living room, translates directly to how he is off stage. He is also a little unpredictable and really funny. Once, in the middle of a conversation he and I were having about punk rock music he politely excused himself, proceeded to direct a barrage of abusive (but affectionate) banter at one of his Scrapomatic band mates and then gracefully returned to our conversation. Shortly after that he shared a photo of his adorable little daughter.
Mark Rivers, the reverent gentleman, never failed to greet with a ‘thousand watt’ smile and, whether it was a ‘good morning’ or a ‘good day’, he always ended with Ma’am, or Miss. He was consistently polite and generous with his good energy on, and off, the stage. Both Mike and Mark are prolific and accomplished singers in their own right yet choose to share the attention, a testament to their personalities and what this band is about; sharing good music.
Sometimes lineage extends beyond blood-lines; it pushes boundaries of DNA and simply exists in a shared space of energy and compatibility. Such is the relationship of the two drummers, JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell. The kinship between these two men is more than evident, rather, it is palpable. It’s the kind of relationship where humor doesn’t always need words and timing between the two both personally and professionally is impeccable. This is true even when they’re not behind a drum kit. When I first met Tyler he embraced me with a big old ‘come here’ uncle hug. He is that type of kind; generous and approachable. He’s also funny in that way that people who tell stories with an effortless nonchalance to their voice but their timing is so right that even his telling of a ridiculous dream had us laughing.
JJ Johnson has a slightly more reserved approach when meeting people, preferring a handshake and a genuine smile. He is polite and friendly on first introductions, with preciseness to his thoughts that slowly reveal his sharp humor and intelligence. He is seemed very generous and thoughtful with his time. At the Tilles Center show, as I was leaving the venue, I witnessed two fans approach JJ with a sort of assumed recognition. “Remember me?” said the younger, bespectacled one. He clearly didn’t but he was trying his hardest, either to remember or to remain polite and not offend. Turns out they were fans of John Mayer’s and had acquired mutual friends from the days of following him around. They lived in the area so they wanted to support JJ in his new band. They were gluttonous for his time, which he generously gave, taking photos and offering small talk. It was cold out there. I don’t know that I’d have that patience. Much like he is on stage, JJ stays intuitive and thoughtful in conversation, while remaining aware to support what’s happening around him. On the bus, his iTunes collection was often the soundtrack for most nights ranging from classical, to jazz to Pantera!
It’s clear that the Tedeschi Trucks band is the brain-child of Susan and Derek, this is their dream for sure, but in bringing together these talented musicians and great personalities, they are making dreams happen for so many. It is natural to think that Derek and Susan ‘lead’ the band but what they really do is evoke the greatness in their friends and each other, as they all seamlessly transition into their solo’s, their voice in the conversation, and the rest of the family stand right behind in support. And what’s revealed from there can’t be measured, and it can’t be quantified but is the result of all the many years of sweat and practice and risk and poverty and bad gigs and good gigs and misfortune and chance meetings and hard work and simple, authentic talent.
I love travel, I always have. Road trips, train rides, bus rides, planes; the general feeling of momentum and forward motion appeals to my temperament. I have always nestled into life in motion, with or without a certain level of comfort. However, never have I enjoyed such a journey where the definition of luxury wasn’t placed in the obvious, it simply turned out to be the company of intelligent, thoughtful, witty and wickedly talented people.
And yes Susan, you really do work with a great group of people and clearly have a lot of fun.
Catch the Tedeschi Trucks Band in your town. You won’t be sorry, their show is incredible.
I am available to tour with your band as your writer, yoga teacher and body therapist! You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org