Derek Trucks Band: “Already Free”
Derek Trucks and Co. kick off their sixth album with simmering, soulful cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Down in the Flood,” a choice that reveals much about where the band’s minds are these days. On Already Free, DTB gives their best shot at capturing the loose, ramshackle charm of The Band– particularly, the ragged, laid-back glory of The Basement Tapes— which is, of course, no easy task. And if they don’t succeed– if they play it just a bit too straight, lacking the sense of mischief and myth-making that elevated those legendary Dylan/Band sessions to the stuff of American rock nirvana– they at least pull off the next best thing, bottling the spirit, if not exactly the sound, of Lowell George and Little Feat.
And why wouldn’t they? Though Trucks himself is an ace blues guitarist, and though he and his bandmates have a longstanding interest in Indian musical motifs, their sound has always been rooted primarily in sweaty, Southern R&B, and it’s that influence that is at the core and the forefront of Already Free. Not exactly swaggering so much as cruising by on self-assurance, effortlessness and ease, this is the album where DBT whittles their sound down to its most carefree, laid-back incarnation, n album of steady groovers and R&B workouts that finds the full Trucks posse– with the usual cadre of guests– playing with an organic singularity and the same sort of chemistry that made the best Little Feat records such slow-burning charmers. There are no frills and absolutely no nonsense to this lean, focused little record, which, alas, means that some of the band’s more interesting quirks and rough edges have been sawed off; there are no nine-minute instrumentals and very little of the Eastern influence that gave extra dimension to the group’s 2006 killer, Songlines. And yet, these grooves are so unrelenting and the interplay between the musicians so warm that it’s hard to complain; like Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes or Dixie Chicken, this is music that’s mellow and unassuming but positively irresistible as it glides from one sweet groove to the next.
If they do resemble The Basement Tapes-era Band in any regard, it’s in the sense of community they capture– which is, of course, nothing new for this ensemble. Dylan and The Band created those mythic sessions at Big Pink by creating a sort of communal sing-along feel, passing the microphone from Dylan to Robbie Robertson and back again as they careened from Dylan’s devilish originals to weird old folk ditties and back again. And again, the DTB crew captures the spirit of those sessions without necessarily replicating the sound, keeping their studio doors open for a number of guest singers to walk through and share mic duties with soulful frontman Mike Mattison. Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II tries his hand at singing, and sounds lackluster when compared to Mattison, but Trucks’ wife, Susan Tedeschi, is typically winsome when she lends her bluesy pipes to the standout ballad “Back Where I Belong.” (Indeed, the clearest stylistic antecedent to this set, more so than The Band or Little Feat, is Tedeschi’s own, excellent 2008 release, Back to the River.) And, also in true DTB fashion, the band lobs a few covers over the plate; aside from the Dylan tune, which is performed with a gravity that makes it more straightforward but no less engaging than the original, there’s a free-wheeling, joyful take on Paul Pena’s “Something to Make You Happy,” and a knockout, gospel-drenched reading of the Memphis classic “Sweet Inspiration,” performed– like everything else here– with a sweaty, hard-edged grit.
But this is Trucks’ show, and arguably his finest turn yet as a bandleader; if he seems to solo a bit less than usual, his fiery slide guitar work is still dynamite, and he does some of his finest acoustic picking yet on the ballads. But it’s in his seamless integration of diverse styles and sounds, and in uniting such a talented crew of musicians into such an organic sound, that he truly amazes. There are the usual hints of jazz and gospel here, and just a touch of Indian drone on “I Know,” but this, more than any other Trucks album to date, is a bravura performance of blues chops and rock and roll energy, a rollicking and easygoing set of songs that feels like the product of a singular vision despite incorporating so many players, so many sources, so much diversity. It’s a thick, hot brew of swelling B-3 organ and funky hand percussion, of white-hot guitar work and damn fine singing, and while Trucks contributes some of his best originals yet– highlights include the New Orleans R&B feel of “Maybe This Time,” the moving ballad “Back Where I Belong,” and the benedictory grace of the title song– the truest testament to this band’s strengths might be in the fact that the covers are integrated so seamlessly, and that even when they’re playing someone else’s songs, this always feels like the vision of the Trucks posse, from the first note to the last.
It’s the clearest, most confident distillation of their talents yet– which isn’t necessarily the same as saying that it’s their best album; Already Free is a smoother, more seamless album than Songlines, which in some ways makes it all the more impressive, but it’s also easy to miss some of the more surprising and strange elements that creeped into that terrific set. Still, this is a home-recorded platter that brims with real ambition, and if they’re not quite as singular as The Band just yet, they’re still making some of the most irresistible and creatively alive American music of the late 00s, a reputation that this very fine album reasserts several times over.