Derek Trucks is soft-spoken and unassuming. In concert, his face is expressionless as he speaks through his slide guitar. To hear him speak, you wouldn’t know that you were in the presence of one of the new blues greats, someone described by many as a prodigy and named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one to the "Top 100 Guitar Players of All Time." His Sony-produced video bio, which shows Trucks playing with members of the eponymous Derek Trucks Band, features clips of an 11-year-old Derek being interviewed on TV, where he chuckles in his relaxed southern drawl: "Once you get the music bug, it’s over with. You’re stuck in a bus for the rest of your life."
Trucks caught that bug early. He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but basically grew up on the road. Within a year of picking up his first guitar at a rummage sale at the age of nine, he was touring with his father-cum-chaperone and manager, forming his first band by the age of 12, and eventually finishing his high school education on the road to accommodate his heavy touring schedule. By 1999, he was touring with both his own group, the Derek Trucks Band, and had joined the Allman Brothers Band full-time as the new slide guitarist, replacing the late Duane Allman. He has continued to tour, almost without rest, ever since.
On Tuesday, November 22, the Derek Trucks Band performs at the State Theater in New Brunswick at the first-ever Jams for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, a benefit concert.
Many people have asked Trucks where he finds his brand of unflagging energy. Trucks, seeming much wiser than his 27 years, offers this insight: "I think if I was playing music with the goal of becoming ‘somebody,’ it would be inevitable to burn out. Playing music that inspires you is its own medicine." It certainly seems that Trucks has collected a wealth of influences to feed his inspiration. For a guitarist, he’s big on Coltrane. He also pulls from Marvin Gaye, Cannonball Adderly, classic Chicago blues players like Howling Wolf and Otis Rush, and John Lee Hooker, with whom he played on New Year’s in 2000.
And, then of course, there’s the Allman Brothers Band. Trucks’s uncle, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of the ABB. After his nephew had been playing for only two years, Butch invited him to sit in for the tune "South Bound." The rest, as they say, is history.
His touring schedule keeps him on the road for as many as 300 days out of the year, but Trucks has found time to have a family. His wife and award-winning fellow guitar authority Susan Tedeschi has sat in with the Derek Trucks Band, but primarily tours with her own group, the Susan Tedeschi Band. In addition to Susan’s daughter, Sophia, the couple has a son, Charlie, who was born in 2002 and is named after jazz guitar legend Charlie Christian. Both Susan and Derek continue to balance home life in Georgia with careers on the road, and audiences, musicians, and critics alike are certainly taking heed.
Both have released successful albums. Tedeschi’s debut record, "Better Days" (1995, Tone Cool) earned her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. In 2002, she was nominated again, this time for "Wait for Me," produced by the well-respected Tom Dowd. Likewise, Trucks has released several albums, including the band’s Columbia debut, "Soul Serenade," (2002); a gospel-inspired title, "Joyful Noise" (2003); and most recently, a live recording of a 2004 performance titled, "Live at the Georgia Theater."
There are five permanent members of the DTB, creating a group as eclectic as the music it creates. Trucks, of course, always takes the lead on slide-style guitar. Todd Smallie has been singing and playing bass with Trucks for 12 years. Next came Yonrico Scott with percussion and vocals. Scott, who studied under George Hamilton, received his bachelors degree in percussion performance from the University of Kentucky. Kofi Burbridge (keyboard, flute, and vocals) attended the North Carolina School of the Arts before joining with DTB in 1999, the same year Trucks added the ABB to his list of steady gigs. This was the DTB lineup for the next three years, until Mike Mattison, accomplished vocalist and half of the New York City-area group Scrapomatic, joined the team in 2002. Over the years, the DTB has also featured several guests from around the world, including soul legend Solomon Burke and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, an acclaimed vocalist from Pakistan.
Certainly, the DTB sound is one that defies categorization. Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical director and sidekick, called Trucks "rock ‘n roll royalty." The first time Phil Lesh, co-founder of the Grateful Dead, heard a recording, he "almost had to pull over." Trucks has played with Bob Dylan and Les Paul.
The November 22 benefit concert is organized by Princeton Partners, a communications firm that took on Special Olympics of New Jersey (SONJ) as a pro bono client 12 years ago. SONJ provides opportunities to train and compete athletically for people with intellectual disabilities. This year Princeton Partners was given the OK to launch a new awareness campaign that would culminate in a live event at the State Theater, a project that has been in the works for at least four years.
SONJ account executive Chris Sullivan, a fan of classic rock and a guitar player himself, first heard "guitar phenom" Derek Trucks when he began performing with ABB at the tender age of 20. Sullivan says he invited the DTB to play at the Jams for the Special Olympics of New Jersey because of their unique ability to reach all kinds of people – the DTB sound encompasses myriad styles from blues to classic rock to Middle Eastern and Indian music. Trucks’ chameleon-like slide guitar changes deftly from hard-hitting blues riff to doubling a high, soulful vocal line. According to Sullivan, the DTB’s "cool, cutting edge sound" combines with "phenomenal talent."
The Jams for SONJ event will also feature a bit of local flavor. Rutgers’s own Nell Sanders will open the concert. A versatile and accomplished musician in her own right, Sanders was chosen in a competition held last week on the New Brunswick campus. The last contestant in a series of nine scheduled acts and five walk-ins, Sanders’s percussion playing woke everyone up, despite the late hour. Jen Gutierrez, Princeton Partners intern, Rutgers student, and coordinator of the event, says that even after a night of acoustic soloists; pop-style singers; and the popular women’s a cappella group, Shockwave, Sanders had everyone floored. Gutierrez says. "Everyone was just, like, wow!" The judges, comprised of representatives from the Kappa Phi Alpha and Sigma Lambda Epsilon sororities, as well as a person chosen at random from the audience, chose Sanders for the Jams event because she was "unique. She just has this energy about her."
Having already built a reputation in the Hub City as a good show, Sanders is sure to be a welcome introduction to what Sullivan says will be "a great night of music for a great cause. Just trust me, you’ll walk away a big fan of the [DTB], and an even bigger fan of the organization."
Benefit Concert, Tuesday, November 22, 7 p.m., Special Olympics New Jersey, State Theater, New Brunswick. Inaugural benefit concert features the Derek Trucks Band with a blend of jazz, blues, and roots music. Area college students open the show with original music. $25 to $100. 732-246-7469.