It certainly wasn’t by design, but Signs, the new album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, may go down as a lasting tribute to the contributions Kofi Burbridge made to this dynamic 12-person group.
A songwriting contributor who played keyboards and flute in the group, Burbridge stepped up his role in the making of Signs and left an indelible mark on the project.
“I think the thing that really sets this album apart, in my opinion, is a lot of the work that Kofi did on this record,” singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi said in a mid-May phone interview. “A lot of his keyboard work and his flute playing is just incredible. But then he wrote all of these amazing string arrangements. And we had four players from the Jacksonville Symphony come and he conducted them and he put out the charts in front of them and it was like excitement and it was perfect and it was incredible. That just brought a new depth, I think, to the songs.”
The several songs with Burbridge’s string arrangements on Signs indeed add rich new dimensions to the band’s sound. For example, on “I’m Gonna Be There”, the strings heighten the Philly Soul feel of this sleek mid-tempo song and add beauty to the lovely ballads “Strengthen What Remains” and “When I Will Begin.”
Sadly, Burbridge passed away on Feb. 15– the same day Signs was released– from complications stemming from a 2017 heart attack. It’s been a big loss for the band, Tedeschi said, not just for his musical contributions, but on a personal level.
“It’s been really tough. It’s just one of those things nobody expected,” she said. “We knew he had been dealing with heart issues. He went through all of the hard surgery last year, and then when they said he had to go back in because he wasn’t feeling right, it was just scary. Then he made it through the scary stuff, so we thought he was through the really bad part. Then it was just too much for his body to take. It’s one thing to make it through the surgeries and start on the road to recovery, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent.”
“He was really young. He was only 57,” Tedeschi said. “The world lost a musical genius, that is for sure, and a very, very sweet person.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band has soldiered on through this difficult period and the band has been buoyed by having its share of very successful shows and the presence of two new band members.
“I do feel like we’ve been very blessed to have our new bass player, Brandon Boone from Augusta, Georgia,” said Tedeschi mentioning the musician who took over last year for Tim Lefebvre. “He’s amazing. He’s so talented and young and sweet and positive. And taking the place for Kofi, for now, is Gabe Dixon, who’s a tremendous talent. He has his solo band and records and everything. He’s really pretty outrageous, too, a great singer-songwriter, organ, piano, really a consummate musician. He’s beautiful and super sweet, too. In the midst of all of
the horrible things, we’ve been really blessed with some really amazing people that make it a
Pushing forward through adversity is nothing new for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which for nearly a decade has been able to thrive and defy what at first seemed like long odds that such a band could actually work long term.
Formed in 2010, Tedeschi and guitarist Derek Trucks (who had been in the Allman Brothers Band, fronted his own Derek Trucks Band, and played in Eric Clapton’s touring group) took the inspiration for the Tedeschi Trucks Band from Joe Cocker’s free-wheeling Mad Dogs and Englishmen unit of the early 1970s. Now 12 members strong, the Tedeschi Trucks Band features not only Tedeschi, Trucks, Dixon and Boone but drummers/percussionists Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, the horn section of Kebbi Williams (saxophone), Ephraim Owens (trumpet) and Elizabeth Lea (trombone), occasional lead vocalist and harmony vocalist Mike Mattison, and harmony vocalists Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour.
Early on, there were plenty of doubters about whether a band that large could be financially viable as a touring act, but the group now regularly headlines large theaters and during summers, headlines a multi-act festival tour, Wheels of Soul, that plays outdoor amphitheaters.
There were also questions about whether 12 musicians could make things work internally and be on the same page musically. And while a few members have come and gone, the group has developed a strong musical chemistry.
One reason the Tedeschi Trucks Band is working is there is a clear leader in Trucks, who makes the lion’s share of the decisions for the group and keeps the band members focused and pointed in the same direction both in the studio and on stage. It’s a role that comes naturally to Trucks, said Tedeschi (who is Trucks’ wife).
“He’s really an excellent leader. He’s also a good captain. He’s literally a good captain on our boat, as a navigator, and as just a leader,” she said. “People listen to him. And you have to have somebody to listen to and not think, and not question it or anything like that. The same thing live.”
“He knows how to communicate with everybody,” Tedeschi added. “He’s aware of everybody’s needs and feelings and how they communicate.”
Signs, the fourth album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, was written and recorded during breaks in touring over an 18-month period. It features not only songs written individually or in various combinations by Trucks, Tedeschi, Mattison, and Burbridge, but with several close musical friends of the group, including Warren Haynes (of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule), Doyle Bramhall II and Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers).
“It’s nice because then you have songs you’ve written with your friends, too,” Tedeschi said. “They’ve been a part of our lives for 20 or 30 years.”
The songs on Signs sharpen the mix of rock, blues, and soul that has been the trademark of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and includes some of the band’s strongest songwriting.
Lyrically, many songs on Signs have deep meanings for the band members. There’s a topical side to the album with tunes like punchy soul-kissed rocker “Signs/High Times” and the multi-faceted rocker “Shame,” which offer looks at the jumbled and highly charged social/political/environmental climate of today’s world. Other songs are more personal. The acoustic ballad “The Ending” was written to honor one of the musical mentors and closest friends of Trucks and Tedeschi– Col. Bruce Hampton, whose various groups over four decades served as training grounds for a host of musicians. The Colonel passed away in 2017. The delicate ballad “Strengthen What Remains” was written about Trucks’ late aunt. “I’m Gonna Be There” and “Walk Through This Life” bring moments of optimism to Signs telling of hard-won promises to persevere through hardships and stay committed to a relationship.
On tour, the Tedeschi Trucks Band varies its set lists from show to show, but Tedeschi said several of the new songs usually get played, along with a rotating cross-section of tunes from the band’s first three albums and some covers.
“We’re kind of mixing it up, doing different stuff, trying to keep stuff fresh,” she said. “It’s been really good, really positive. And that way it keeps it really fresh for the audience. They never know what they’re going to get– and neither do we. It’s been really good.”