One night near the end of 2015, I was in Eau Claire, Wisconsin for a Jason Isbell concert. After driving two hours to the gig, I stopped in at the bar next to the theater for a pre-show drink and heard that about 90 fans had just been murdered during an Eagles Of Death Metal concert at La Bataclan theatre in Paris. For most of my life, I’ve been a regular concert-goer, heading out to see live music about once per week. I’ve come to regard clubs, theaters, and even arenas as sacred places. I stopped attending church years ago, but I still go to shows because there’s something profoundly moving about standing in a room with strangers and feeling a shared spiritual connection. I get that feeling from live music, not religion.
The Paris attacks felt like a violation of a hallowed ritual. The news rattled me. It felt personal. But I was grateful that I had a show to see that that night. I needed to see a show that night. When Isbell played “Elephant,” I shed a few more tears than usual.
I had a similar experience at a concert last November. My beautiful daughter Rosemary had been born just nine days prior. Donald Trump had been elected president just three days prior. I felt exhausted from several sleepless nights — mostly caused by the baby, though Trump certainly wasn’t helping things. Trump had somehow turned the birth of my daughter — one of the happiest occasions of my life — into another source of anxiety. The election made me think all of the usual paternal thoughts, starting with, “How will I explain to my daughter that our country just elected an orange misogynist? Will she even believe me? It sounds like an episode of Shitty Sesame Street.” I was depressed, scared, angry, and utterly clueless about what the future had in store. These are not sensations you can afford to have when you’re a father — you’re supposed to be the stable one. But I was unnerved.
The first several numbers that night went by in a haze. The band was good — real good, in fact — but I couldn’t connect. Then the lead singer stepped up to the microphone and spoke about the late Leonard Cohen. (Did I mention that Leonard Cohen died just four days before this concert? It was a heavy week.) Then she cued the band and started playing this song.
It wasn’t this exact version. (This is from Austin City Limits in 2016.) The group I was seeing, Tedeschi Trucks Band, has included Cohen’s “Bird On The Wire” in set lists for the past couple of years. You can search on Youtube and pick out any number of beautiful renditions of “Bird On The Wire” by Tedeschi Trucks Band. (There’s even a stunning version included on the new live album, Live From The Fox Oakland. More on that in a minute.)
But the version from that night in November stands out in my mind as a rare moment of grace during a wonderful and terrible period, when the universe gave me an incredible gift right as mankind seemed poised to tear the universe apart. Cohen’s words resonated more than they ever had with me — “Bird On The Wire” is about how nobody, no matter how many times they screw up, is beyond redemption. Even a nation that makes a grievous error in judgement might one day be saved. This was underlined by the beauty of singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi’s soulful interpretation of Cohen’s empathetic prayer, which transformed “Bird On The Wire” into actual gospel music gently guided by Tedeschi’s husband and the group’s band leader, Derek Trucks.
But most of all, I was struck by the visual of an 11-piece outfit that includes men, women, black people, and white people standing on the same stage — sharing, collaborating, dancing, celebrating, and above all working together toward a common goal. The music itself was a thoroughly American amalgamation of blues, soul, jazz, and funk. But Tedeschi Trucks Band hit hardest that night as a reiteration of an idea about America that seemed to have been discarded in a road-side ditch earlier that week. That the election didn’t kill the compassionate spirit of this country — particularly the ways in which that spirit is manifested in American music, our nation’s greatest export — filled me with so much unexpected hope. Like that, Tedeschi Trucks Band became my new favorite live band.
Imagine Bonnie Raitt fronting Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen era band, and you have a decent approximation of what Tedeschi Trucks Band sounds like live. Formed in 2010, Tedeschi Trucks Band represents a union of backing bands by two of the finest contemporary blues guitarists in the world, who married in 2001. It’s the kind of group that most people assume stopped existing the minute the credits started rolling on Almost Famous. (Trucks actually used to play in one of the bands that inspired Almost Famoust, he Allman Brothers Band.) But Tedeschi Trucks Band has actually made a bigger cultural footprint that most bands — they won a Grammy in 2011 for their debut, Revelator, and they were invited by Barack Obama to perform at the White House.
On records like Revelator, 2013’s Made Up Mind, and last year’s Let Me Get By, Tedeschi Trucks Band is a good if not quite exceptional blues-rock band. The group’s strengths — Tedeschi’s vocals, Trucks’ ungodly slide-guitar solos, and the cumulative power of a band with two drummers, a full-horn section, and a small choir of backing singers — require that you see Tedeschi Trucks Band in person for it all to fully register. Live albums represent a good happy medium — 2012’s Everybody’s Talkin’ is excellent, and the new Live From The Fox Oakland is even better because it comes with a concert film, so you can actually see the players interact on stage as a mini-utopia of musical egalitarianism.
Culled from a single concert recorded during the band’s fall of 2016 tour, Live From The Fox Oakland is structured like all great concerts: as a series of peaks and valleys that slowly build momentum to a big emotional pay-off. Several songs stretch past the 10-minute mark — Tedeschi Trucks Band exists on the periphery of the jam-band scene — but Trucks leads the group with the discipline of a musical director in charge of a ’60s soul-revue, so the vamping rarely seems excessive. Even the 14-minute show-stopper “I Want More” doesn’t feel padded, as it veers from a raging stomper to a quiet guitar interlude by Trucks and then roars dramatically back into stomp mode, like an old-school Sam & Dave routine. All the while, Live From The Fox Oakland feels like you’re witnessing a rambunctious conversation among friends, and it draws you and makes you want to be part of it.
Live From The Fox Oakland is a delight, but above all it is a commercial for leaving your house and seeing Tedeschi Trucks Band in a room full of people. At times like these, we could all use a little life-affirming shelter from the soul-destroying storm.