Derek Trucks and Duane Allman

It was my privilege to catch the Derek Trucks Band concert at the National in Richmond last evening. Those two hours confirmed my opinion that Derek is a once-in-a-generation talent. The Band played several of my favorite tunes, including “I’ll Find My Way,” “Greensleeves,” “Key to the Highway” and the one that far and away gets the most hits on my IPOD, “Mahjoun.” The DTB has great chemistry and many influences … not only American blues and jazz, but there are also strong hints of West Africa and even India from time to time.

Derek’s craftsmanship is impeccable. He seems to play slide about 70% of the time now. It must be difficult for those who’ve never tried it to comprehend how challenging this style can be. Playing the usual way, as long as the finger depresses the string anywhere within the confines of the fret, the note will ring true. This is different than playing with the slide bottle, which must be placed very precisely on the string above the fret to ensure an accurate sound. This is increasingly tough as you work your way up the neck where the frets get progressively closer together. Even more difficult is what I refer to as “string management.” On a Gibson guitar with hot pickups and a cranked amplifier, it’s so easy for miscellaneous string noise to creep through. The bottle is almost always touching strings that the guitarist isn’t actually “playing” with the right hand. The challenge is to deaden those strings to prevent them from getting in the way of the music. Not easy.

Describing Derek Trucks, I once heard a music critic on National Public Radio say that as you listen, “you don’t have to be an expert to know that something striking is happening.” That’s for damn sure. Before I left for the concert I found a youtube interview clip with Dickey Betts (formerly with the Allman Brothers Band) responding to a sacrilegious quote from Butch Trucks (ABB percussionist and uncle of Derek Trucks), who said that “technically, Derek Trucks is a better guitarist than Duane Allman.” Dickey noted that the comparison was “apples and oranges,” because both were great players and innovators … they just come from different eras and origins. And besides, he says, music is not a competition, certainly not in this instance … if it were, everyone would be a well-deserved winner.

I suspect that both Butch and Dickey were correct in their respective analyses. I think Derek spent many hours as a budding musician listening to Duane, who passed away a decade or so before Derek was even born. I further deduce that he is as indebted to Duane as any musician has ever been to a mentor or role model. But Derek Trucks is about as original as a musician can be in this day and time. He is a product of his influences, to be sure, but nobody has ever come close to generating the sounds that Derek extracts from the instrument. The operative word in Butch’s comment was “technically.” By that I think he meant that Derek can physically play notes, chords, etc. that Duane could not play. I think this is irrefutably true … but let’s allow for the fact that Derek had more hours on slide by the time he was 15 years old than Duane had at his death.

Duane’s magic is harder to define. Although he only lived to age 24, he played with great taste, spirit and maturity. He didn’t fall into the trap of self-indulgence that so many young guitarists fall prey to. A few years back, Rolling Stone listed the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (ignoring the jazz greats through history, but including all other genres … typically idiotic Rolling Stone logic), and they placed Jimi Hendrix at the top with Duane Allman in the number two position. This is not unreasonable, but it is arguable … and I’ll argue it right now. Hendrix was a great innovator and a great player, and could have been the premier blues player of all time had he lived and focused. But while he was setting his Stratocaster on fire and waving his feather boa, Duane Allman was making music … with fire, soul and intensity. In my estimation, Duane was the better player. (For perspective, I should mention that the whole Rolling Stone list is absurd … Derek Trucks is ranked 81st behind virtuosos like John Fogerty, Joni Mitchell and Jerry Miller of Moby Grape.)

Duane Allman died in October of 1971 and I ain’t over it yet. I never saw him play live and I’ve always regretted that very deeply. But Derek represents the here and now. I’m thankful for it, and won’t miss a show if it’s within a half-day’s drive.

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