The challenge presented to bands that have earned sterling reputations for their live performances is to capture that same energy and freedom in the studio. On Made Up Mind, the third album from Tedeschi Trucks Band, the test got a little harder as the 11-piece ensemble’s studio debut Revelator already won a Grammy and its Everybody’s Talkin’ follow-up was a critically-hailed live collection from its passionate and penetrating concert appearances. What was left to prove?
While the cover art depicting a buffalo charging headlong into a locomotive suggests a defiant, if not ill-fated independence, the 11 songs within are accessible, complete thoughts that demonstrate a desire to further not only the collective’s ability to support one another musically, but also write great songs. The title track grooves with teasing restraint against a front-running and confident Susan Tedeschi vocal before a scorching Derek Trucks slide outro. “Do I Look Worried” and “Misunderstood,” underpinned by scowling blues and greasy funk respectively, are linked by the gentle “Idle Wind,” accented by zephyrs of flute from keyboardist Kofi Burbridge.
The absence of brother and bassist Oteil Burbridge is unfortunate as their sibling synergy was always a highlight, but the cache of ace session specialists and friends filling in keeps the train, or buffalo, thundering forward. Offering a wide swath of style and tone, the record’s range extends from the Muscle Shoals-inspired “Part of Me,” featuring a gorgeous falsetto of trombonist Saunders Sermon and jangling guitar that will defy anyone to remain motionless, to the introspective “It’s So Heavy,” written in response to the Newtown school tragedy. “Whiskey Legs,” its tricky opening riff and phased-out warble giving way to a trading-licks jam between Tedeschi and Trucks, reminds listeners this unit carries not one, but two prodigious guitar players.
Grinding soul and slow cruise tempo on “All That I Need” and “Sweet and Low” come together on the “The Storm,” marked by the ostinato drum dueling of J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell under a relentless Trucks pattern that cycles like a tornado until the album comes to rest on the unembellished “Calling Out to You.” In fact, Trucks’ maturity as a guitarist is only half the story, as he’s joined once again by Jim Scott, with help from Doyle Bramhall II, in co-producing the album. Recorded at Tedeschi and Trucks’ Swamp Raga studio, the resulting mixes alternate from white-hot glow to pastoral shade with plenty of room for horn lines and harmonies, all without slick, antiseptic sheen.
The best reason for why Made Up Mind succeeds is that it completely avoids coat-tailing on previous success. Tedeschi Trucks Band has delivered an album that is the next exciting step forward in the evolution of these musicians who all feel this third record together is just the beginning. Maybe that’s what was left to prove.