Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Sky [Music] [Non-Sports]

What were you doing with your life when you were 11 years old?

I was in sixth grade and age 11 actually marked the apex of my athletic career. That summer was the only year I played football, and as an undersized offensive lineman by default, I carried my Jr. Plainsmen team (not really) to an undefeated season. It was also the only year I made a CYO Basketball team (St. Edwards Gold, baby) and we won our Diocesan Championship on a still legendary buzzer beater by Ange Michael. I played the crucial role of 7th man, coming off the bench for 6 points in the championship game against St. Paul's. For that one year, I was like the David Eckstein of Clifton Park, except I couldn't use being short as an excuse for why I sucked.

I only ask because at 11 years of age, Derek Trucks was already doing shows with the Allman Brothers Band. It probably helped that his uncle, Butch Trucks, was an original member of the Allmans, but they weren't going to throw the kid on stage if he wasn't something truly special.

Derek was born in 1979 and named after the Eric Clapton-led group Derek and the Dominoes. He bought his first acoustic guitar at a garage sale at the age of 9 for $5. Learning to play the guitar at any age takes a toll on the tips of your fingers, but young Derek simply couldn't put enough pressure on the strings of a $5 acoustic to play it. Since his Uncle was in the Allman Brothers, and he had grown up listening to his parents' LPs of Eat A Peach and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, he decided to circumvent traditional playing and try the slide or "bottleneck" like his idol, Duane Allman.

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A slide is a tube-shaped device made of glass, metal, plastic or ceramics that totally transforms how the guitar is played. In a pinch, a Zippo or even a plastic lighter isn't that bad of an option. The slide has to be applied with enough pressure to keep the strings from buzzing when picked, but not so much as to make the strings touch the frets. I'm guessing the $5 guitar he bought had considerable space the between the strings and the fingerboard (action), which would make it very difficult to play normally, but perfect for slide.

When playing slide, the frets are only useful as a frame of reference as to where to position the slide itself. In that way, playing slide guitar is similar to the violin in that you don't have frets to land the note on. You have to find the notes yourself, which is done almost exclusively with your ear.

The modern incarnation of the technique is said to have come from Hawaiian guitarist named Joseph Kekuku.
He was walking along a road in Honolulu, holding an old Spanish guitar when he saw a rusty bolt on the ground. As he picked it up, the bolt accidentally vibrated one of the strings and produced a new tone that was rather pleasing. After practicing for a time with the metal bolt, Joe experimented with the back of a pocket knife, then with the back of a steel comb and still later on with a highly polished steel (bar) very similar to the sort that is used today.
Hawaii had already set a precedent for developing unique guitar traditions, inventing slack key in the late 19th century. The technique involves tuning the guitar down to form open chords, creating the mellow trademark Hawaiian sound you instantly associate with leis and luaus.

At 30 years old, Kekuku left O'ahu to pursue a recording career on the mainland, never to return to Hawaii. He spent the next 28 years touring the U.S. and Europe performing, teaching and popularizing the steel and slide guitar.

In Sub-Saharan African there were and still are one-stringed bowed instruments that are played using a smooth stone or piece of bone as a slide. This is thought to have carried over during the slave trade and morphed into a similar contraption called the Jitterbug that surfaced in the South in the 1800's.

In the early 1900's, guitars had begun to be manufactured instead of handcrafted, and this made them far more available to the masses. The reason it's also called "bottleneck", is that some of the original slides were parts of discarded broken bottles which were carefully cut with a heated blade at just the right point so they wouldn't shatter.

The confluence of these forces lead to the ubiquitization of slide guitar in blues and later country and rock music. Mississippi Delta Blues legends Willy Brown, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, and the King, Robert Johnson (right) were among the first well known practitioners of the trade.

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When Trucks was 12 years old he got his first major gig, opening for Bob Dylan in Clearwater, Florida. He played "Highway 61 Revisited" and later recalled:

I remember leaving the show and I ran into Dylan, I was on my way out and he asked me if I wanted to stick around and sit in with him. I was only 12, but I knew how much weight he carried, I remember my dad being completely freaked out. He was much more nervous than me.
Derek Trucks was officially made a member of the Allman Brothers band in 1999 at the age of 19 and has been touring with them full-time ever since. Luckily for Sampson and I, we live a block away from the (recently restored) Beacon Theatre where the Allmans play 14 shows over a three week period every - well - every year that Gregg Allman's Hep C doesn't decide to flare up.

Another amazing thing about Derek is his stage presence. He's got a young-looking face and a long blond pony tail, and doesn't typically say much during his shows. He is also probably one of the least demonstrative lead guitarists you will ever see. He doesn't feel the need skip around the stage and bang his head or play to the crowd in any way. Instead, he stands there like a monk transfixed in prayer. Check out the clip of Desdemona below from the Beacon and you'll see what I mean. He rips an incredibly moving solo, but simply stands there without even much of a facial expression (and busts out the slide at the 2:10 mark with the sleight of hand of a magician).



Trucks met Eric Clapton backstage at a Folk Festival in 2003. Without warning two years later, he called Derek and asked him to contribute to his album with J.J. Cale, Road to Escondido. Two days into the recording, Clapton asked Trucks to go on tour with him. Having Derek along allowed Clapton to start playing more Derek and the Dominoes tunes including Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad, and Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out (both recent YouTubes from the tour).

His own group, The Derek Trucks Band came together when Trucks was 15 years old and they have been recording and experimenting ever since. In spite of his Southern blues and rock roots, the band is extremely eclectic, also drawing on jazz, funk, Latin, Indian & Pakistani, and classical music to form their own very unique sound.

The video below is a one minute excerpt from Sahib Teri Bandi Maki Madni.

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Even without the imagery I've added, you can clearly hear the Hindu influence in the song. The inspiration for this was the time DT spent studying at the Ali Akbar College of Music. The song is actually a combination of two Punjabi folk classics, "Sahib Teri Bandi" and "Maki Madni", written by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, into one song. What you heard in the beginning is called the "raga"; a section that sounds like improvisation, but is actually a composed segue to the scale the musician will be using. The melody established in the second half of the clip is "Sahib Teri Bandi". If you listen to the full version (the album cut is 9:54 long), you'll hear the "Maki Madni" melody line introduce itself about 3/4 of the way through.

Not everything they do is so musically advanced and intricate. Songs like Sailing On, I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free), Joyful Noise and Get What You Deserve have a more typical rock/blues flavor and less of a world music influence.

Trucks' wife is singer Susan Tedeschi, and they have two children, a boy named Charlie after legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and daughter Sophie, who takes her middle name, Naima, from a John Coltrane song. In addition to his duties with The Allmans, Clapton, and theDTB, Trucks and Tedeschi occasionally merge their bands into a group called Soul Stew Revival.

The title track of this post is obviously This Sky. It's the last track off the album Songlines, but never gets played live for one reason or another. It's and laid back, soothing and almost ethereal. Without further adieu:

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Krypto-Nate!

Can I have a job at The Post?