Husband-and-wife guitarists Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, co-leaders of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and founders of the Sunshine Music & Blues Festival, put together an impressive and varied lineup to precede their closing set during a Sunday stop at Mizner Park Ampitheatre in Boca Raton, and got relatively cool, clear weather to go with it.
A capacity crowd, which slowly filed in as the 11-hour event transpired, thus missed some of the early highlights. Florida-raised blues singer/guitarist Sean Chambers warmed up a sparse main stage crowd with his half-hour set starting at noon. He was followed by the 45-minute set of British blues singer/guitarist Matt Schofield on the secondary stage, placed a hundred yards east.
Those appetizer sets got the growing audience used to the ping-pong format of a primary stage, with both seats and a general-admission standing area, and a smaller stage on the grass with no seats — yet strategically placed among the food, drink and arts vendors.
Both stages featured strong, clear sound and sight lines. It’s just too bad that many missed the early afternoon main stage sighting of Los Angeles roots rock icons Los Lobos. Featuring guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez (vocalists all), plus saxophonist Steve Berlin and percussionist Enrique Gonzalez, the underrated band blended the acoustic nature of its latest release — the 2013 live CD Disconnected in New York City, to celebrate its 40th anniversary — with fiery plugged-in versions of some crowd favorites.
Its hourlong set culminated with a raucous electric rendition of “Don’t Worry Baby,” from the group’s 1984 breakthrough album How Will the Wolf Survive? The subsequent roar by the growing audience showed how much it appreciated Los Lobos surviving for more than four decades.
There were more arrivals during the subsequent second stage set by The Both, the celebrated new duo of Berklee College of Music grad and famed pop songwriter Aimee Mann and post-punk singer/guitarist Ted Leo. Mann played mostly bass in a lineup with drummer Matt Mayhall, resulting in a power pop trio (even if Mann had plexiglass shielding her from the volume of the drums on her side of the stage).
“Welcome to the Sunshine Music & Blues Festival,” Mann announced. “We’re not very bluesy, so we must be the music part.” Her bass and occasional acoustic guitar playing were indeed very musical; Leo played a hollow-bodied electric guitar with a wide range of effects, as well as occasional keyboards, and the duo sang harmony together — in similarly-higher-pitched voices — more often than individually during tracks from the buoyant “Milwaukee” to the somber “You Can’t Help Me Now,” each from The Both’s self-titled 2014 debut CD.
Their closing selection was Mann’s “Voices Carry,” the mid-’80s smash hit by her band ’Til Tuesday, which became a sing-along for the burgeoning throng.
Those who’d just arrived had timed it well, since the mid-afternoon main stage set by the Chris Robinson Brotherhood proved the festival’s daytime highlight. Formed in 2010 after the announcement of yet another extended hiatus by Robinson’s notorious, Georgia-spawned rock band the Black Crowes, the CRB proved funkier, more psychedelic, and more Grateful Dead-like than Robinson’s primary group.
Looking like a White Album-era John Lennon with his shoulder-length hair, beard and shades, the singer played rhythm guitar and fronted a quintet including lead guitarist/vocalist Neal Casal, latter-era Crowes keyboardist/vocalist Adam Macdougall, bassist/vocalist Mark Dutton and drummer George Sluppick. Robinson’s singular, leather-lunged voice was in great form, ranging from soaring excursions à la Robert Plant in the hourlong set’s Zeppelin-esque moments to the soulful screams of an overwrought Southern minister.
Macdougall was also a highlight as the band’s one-man sound effects machine on vintage organs, synthesizers and electric pianos. The solos by he and Casal on the Crowes’ breakout 1990 hit “Hard To Handle,” itself a cover of the Otis Redding hit from 1968, made for a lighter, funkier and more elastic version, and the epic closer “Rosalee” blended New Orleans funk, a free-time midsection, and gospel vocal harmonies. The band’s new third CD, Phosphorescent Harvest, proves that this Brotherhood could keep the Black Crowes (with guitarist and actual brother Rich Robinson) on ice.
The Rebirth Brass Band then created a New Orleans second-line party to the east. Led by tuba player and founder Philip Frazier, who held down the bass notes, its nine-piece lineup also featured two trombonists, two trumpeters, a saxophonist and three drummers — one playing a bass drum; another a snare drum and cymbal, and the third percussion — rather than one playing an entire drum set.
Frazier has led the band for more than 30 years, and guided it through tracks from its 2014 release Move Your Body, wisely interspersed with crowd-pleasing chants and excerpts from the Woodstock-era pop hit “Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction to the blues chestnut “It’s All Over Now” by Bobby and Shirley Womack. It was all occasionally sloppy, and out of tune, but the all-about-the-fun nonet had more dancers than any other festival act.
With nine performances over 11 hours, there was bound to be at least one lull, and it started as the sun went down with the main stage set by Vermont vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist Grace Potter. She normally fronts the bluesy rock quintet Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, but was featured in an awkward duo with only the group’s drummer (and her husband), Matt Burr.
Potter’s soaring voice is a crowd-pleaser, but whether she was playing Hammond organ or a Flying V guitar, it came across more as self-indulgent than not on everything from “Stars” (the gospel-tinged ballad from the Nocturnals’ latest CD, 2012’s The Lion, The Beast, The Beat) to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” With no bassist, there certainly wasn’t a whole lotta bottom, either.
That bottom figuratively arrived in the form of 69-year-old guitarist Robby Krieger of The Doors, which is exactly how he was billed. Former Allman Brothers Band founding member Dickey Betts was scheduled to play with his long-standing band Great Southern, but the singer/guitarist was a late cancellation due to a family illness. Enter the blandman.
Krieger has released a handful of solo efforts since the mid-’70s, yet played only Doors hits in the closing set on the second stage. His son Waylon did a passable job handling Jim Morrison’s lead vocals (not exactly musical brain surgery), but the quintet’s leader proved the weakest link. His solos on “Riders On the Storm” and “L.A. Woman” were atonal and poorly improvised, and he added unnecessary unison vocals on both the latter and “Love Me Two Times.” Krieger’s brightest moments were when he didn’t play his own ideas, like on the closing “Light My Fire,” where his break included quotes of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the jazz standard “My Favorite Things.”
Betts certainly has his flaws, considering that the founding Allman Brother was ousted from the band after co-leading it with Gregg Allman for 30 years. But he would’ve been considerably better than Krieger, who chose only to ride the fame of his band from 45-50 years earlier. The crowd ate up the throwback tunes, but the sordid underbelly of most South Florida listeners is that they’ll do that for anything that’s gotten radio airplay — and an inferior music scene is defined by people wanting to hear what they’ve already heard more than what they never have.
There’s a thin line between giving the people what they want and selling out, and Krieger crossed it. Betts is a much better player, and while he would’ve likely played a few of his great Allman Brothers compositions, he wouldn’t have gone exclusively to the nostalgic well.
Yet Potter’s duo format on the main stage created an easier tear-down and set-up for the subsequent 11-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Krieger’s preceding set served to make the massive closing act that much more powerful. Much of its song list was culled from the band’s latest release, 2013’s Made Up Mind, and featured Tedeschi’s welcoming, soulful and powerful voice and Trucks’ biting tone and wealth of finger-picked, horn-like ideas. But there were also pleasant surprises.
On “Bound for Glory,” a slow, 6/8-timed blues number from the Grammy-winning 2011 debut Revelator, Trucks played slide and traded phrases with the horn section (saxophonist Kebbi Williams, trumpeter Maurice Brown and trombonist Saunders Sermons) while keyboardist Kofi Burbridge, whom Trucks had brought in from his preceding self-titled band, expertly held everything together harmonically with bassist Tim Lefebvre.
The piece also featured the strong upper-register work of backing vocalists Mark Rivers and Mike Mattison. The latter selflessly went from a lead vocalist in Trucks’ band to a backup singer with the TTB, yet is also a strong songwriting component within the group who adds occasional acoustic rhythm guitar.
Other highlights included the funky vehicles “Don’t Miss Me” (from the Derek Trucks Band’s ’09 release Already Free) and “There’s a Break in the Road” (from Tedeschi’s ’08 CD Back To the River). The first featured a stinging solo by the distaff singer/guitarist, and a long, Middle Eastern-fueled break by the 35-year-old Trucks, who only sings with his hands through his inimitable phrasing. The second number, with its blend of New Orleans and Motown feels, incited dancing in the aisles and preceded another traditional high-water mark within the Tedeschi Trucks family.
Trucks’ uncle is Butch Trucks, one of two founding drummers in the Allman Brothers, the other being Jaimoe Johanson. Both were at the Beacon Theatre in New York City three months ago when the iconic band played its final show after 45 years — along with founding namesake Gregg Allman, singer/guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Oteil Burbridge, percussionist Marc Quinones, and Derek, who’d been a member since 1999 — and is one of the few guitarists in the world who could have recreated the slide guitar brilliance of Gregg’s late brother, Duane Allman.
Tedeschi and Trucks’ use of double-drummers J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell (who’d played with underrated Southern pop band The Codetalkers as well as Tedeschi’s group) is a nod to that great American band, which fused blues, rock, jazz and world music influences in ways that other Southern rock acts couldn’t even comprehend.
Johnson played the Jaimoe role throughout the night, holding the rhythms down while dropping funky accents, while Greenwell was more of a Butch figure, alternately playing his kit with one hand while playing maracas or a tambourine with the other for shading and texture.
Yet he had both hands free during their extended unaccompanied solo together, a structured piece with improvisational passages that left the now-capacity audience howling like the one on the Allmans’ live double-drum showcase “Mountain Jam,” from the 1972 album Eat a Peach.
It was yet another figurative high point among countless others, all of which made the all-day event appear to fly by. This was Tedeschi and the Jacksonville-born Trucks’ third installment of the Sunshine Music & Blues Festival to honor his home state, and this was their best combination of talent, attendance and weather. With the Allmans now in the rearview and the couple’s talents and formidable ensemble getting better all the time, the futures of both the fest and band appear bright.