Some people just have it; that certain something that just ignites up the universe in one big BOOM. They are hot, on fire and with one little flick of a wrist, they have all of us so intertwined in their world that we hope never to come down from the high.
There were two such artists, amongst the many talented people performing the second weekend of Jazz Fest, that are the embodiment of this description. Although they are feathers of two different birds, they both contain such a fireball of blues guitar talent that you drop to your knees and do the proverbial bow after just about every solo they so kindly give us. It’s almost like in TOMMY where Eric Clapton leads a congregation to worship at the feet of Marilyn.
It’s fitting that the Gospel Tent was located next to the Blues Tent. Often as I would pass the former to get to the latter, I would hear such a raucous commotion going on that I would have to stop and see just what the heck was happening in there. Ninety percent of the time they were rocking in that Gospel Tent, just totally giving heart and soul to the spirit that moved them. I heard several musicians in the Blues Tent make comment of the Gospel Tent’s shenanigans. One even said we should all take a walk over and join them. If Jazz Fest is anything, it’s an amalgam of spicy soul in all 57 varieties.
Friday was a hot and humid day but the crowds came out, even with a chance of rain. Good music was all around and too good to pass up. I hit a number of stages before making my way back to the Blues Tent for the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band. And let me tell you, if I hadn’t had a special photographer’s pass there was no way in hell I was getting anywhere near that stage. The crowd had spilled many rows deep outside the tent, all straining to see over the heads of the lucky ones who had actually made it inside. At least the breeze was blowing because once this newly combined supergroup took the stage, it was on fire.
And I say this because if you have never seen Derek Trucks live, then you have no clue what is about to hit you. All innocent of face and with such a laid back stage persona that he would be invisible if it wasn’t for the spotlight beaming down upon him, Derek was sweating out a batch of new souled-out blues that kept you out of your seat and on your feet swaying for the entire set.
But Derek wasn’t the only one up on that stage to give sight to the blind. His wife Susan Tedeschi held that crowd in the palm of her hand. After years of touring with their own separate bands, they have decided to combine the talents and hit some festivals for the spring and summer seasons.
Susan handled all the lead vocals while Derek, hobbling out on crutches due to an injured right foot, sat on a stool and played his ever-loving heart out. Oteil Burbridge was, as always, so much fun to watch play bass, constantly smiling and sending out such happy-to-be-here vibes. His brother Kofi was on keys and flute, JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell pounded away as brothers of rhythm, and Mike Mattison and Javier Colon added harmony and backing vocals. A very very tight band. I just wish they would have brought Mike upfront to sing at least one song.
Opening with a rendition of the Delaney & Bonnie classic “Coming Home”, this really set the scene for how this band was going to percolate: all early 70’s R & B flavored soul with hints of psychedelic earth tones. Susan, being the soul love child of Bonnie Bramlett, was in her element, singing heartfelt songs of love, life and spirit. And she was finally given a spotlight to showcase her very own guitar artistry next to Derek. Now maybe she’ll finally get the recognition she deserves.
Filling their setlist with a bundle of new songs, they comfortably segued from one to another: Nobody’s Free,” ”Drift Away” written by Derek, Mike Mattison and Doyle Bramhall II, and “Too Late”. “Midnight In Harlem” and “Look Around” captured soulful longings with lyrics that resonate in today’s world. “Love Has Something Else To Say” lighted up the funky groove before slowing down to a cool burn as Derek eased into an orgasmic solo, sweat dripping into puddles at his feet as he took his familiar red guitar into another plane of Hendrixian proportions, without ever seeming over-the-top.
Finally ending with an earth tone blues funk called “Space Captain”, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, along with their bandmates, caused a rapture inside that Blues Tent that probably has not been seen since Stevie Ray Vaughan was here years ago.
And so it goes that on the following night, the Texas blues maestro’s spirit was indeed alive and well inside a young Shreveport, Louisiana, guitarist named Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With all the energy of a bird of paradise, he burned up the Blues Tent, leaving it smoldering long after he had left the building. Being the total opposite presence-wise of Derek, KWS was all over the stage, giving what they call “great guitar face”, as he shredded the blues into something out of Hades. And he never let up.
Kicking off with “Somehow Somewhere Someway”, he was lit up like a roman candle on a hot and balmy night. Singer Noah Hunt, in a red shirt and floppy hair, was in strong voice, bassist Scott Nelson was steady as a rock while never really leaving his spot near the drums, Riley Osbourn was jacked up on the keys and SRV drummer Chris Layton did what he has always done – keep one of the best beats in rock n roll.
“Everything Is Broken”, “Last Goodbye”, “Losing Kind”, “Come On”, “Shame Shame Shame”, “Every Little Battle," “Blue On Black” and “King Bee” kept the crowd on their feet and raising their arms in total rapturous adulation before he climaxed us with a stunning version of “Voodoo Child”. All this after Kenny Wayne said he was just “going to sit back and play a little guitar for you”.
Derek Trucks and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are two of the best guitar players out there today. Eric Clapton will agree. So will Chris Layton. And I’m sure Stevie Ray is up there somewhere smiling proudly that his progeny are carrying on the blues the way he always loved it.
Photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough