It’s often said of dynamic live acts that their albums don’t fully prepare you for the concert experience. That’s undoubtedly true of Tedeschi Trucks Band, the polymorphous jam band whose gigs are alit with barnstorming virtuosity. Then again, you could just as easily say that the muscle of those live shows is inadequate preparation for the group’s albums, each one a thoughtfully-arranged, multi-layered mélange of American roots idioms. Signs may be their most sophisticated record to date, and also the most contemplative. They come by their reverie honestly: Singer/guitarist/howlin’ blueswoman Susan Tedeschi and venerated ax wizard Derek Trucks, the husband/wife duo around whom this band orbits, buried a number of close friends and mentors in the months leading up to Signs’ release, among them Leon Russell and Trucks’s uncle Butch.
Those ghosts haunt Signs, an album that feels wise and weathered. That’s not to say it wants for rock n’ roll energy: Opener “Signs, Hard Times” spins the jitters into prickly funk, vamping over anxiety like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” And mid-album highlight “Shame” is a dramatic, brass-soaked tour de force of bandleadership, nimbly pivoting from James Brown’s commanding funk to Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral hues. Still, the heart of the record lies in songs that seamlessly integrate supple soul and insinuating R&B, always written with plainspoken empathy, arranged with a deft touch, ignited by Trucks’s crackling solos, and delivered by the gale force of Tedeschi — one of the great living blues singers, and never better than she is here. In “I’m Gonna Be There,” she pledges her fidelity even through life’s storms and trials; the song’s luxuriant groove builds into a swirl of strings, voices, and Trucks’s loose electricity. She hopes for better days and happier times on “When Will I Begin,” a song that captures the strange weather of prime Van Morrison, beginning as regally swaying R&B before swirling off into the mystic. “Strengthen What Remains” is a shimmering ballad, mostly acoustic, nestled deep down in the low embers of Tedeschi’s voice and accented with graceful woodwinds and strings. It’s the Tedeschi Trucks Band at their most delicate, while “Hard Case” represents their choogling, Dixie funk best — and a reminder of love’s tenacity, even when times get tough.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 1