Recently one of my peers asked me who my favorite young guitarist was. Without hesitation I blurted out, "Why Derek Trucks, of course!" Having witnessed his slide guitar virtuosity on stage and on record with both the Derek Trucks Band and the Allman Brothers Band, pound for pound he is my favorite contemporary guitarist. I confess that I admire John Mayer as well, though he's often overlooked because of the infectious frothy pop that spills from his CDs. And jam-meister Robert Randolph is greased lightning on the pedal steel. But young Trucks is like a finely-tuned middleweight boxer at the height of his career. He mastery of his instrument, a Gibson SG, is staggering as he effortlessly tosses off ringing triplets and stinging leads both with a slide and without.I remember his early days with the Allman Brothers, when Gregg would pull him out onstage to drop some wicked counterpunch to Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes axe fights. Young Derek would stand so still, as if he was in awe of the musicianship surrounding him. But once he'd let his fingers find their place on the neck of his guitar, well, even Dickie and Warren would look over and smile. Them and us. Band and audience, witnessing the birth of a young guitar legend. As protective of his young age and innocence as they might have been, his chops were anything but innocent, having shared stages with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, and Joe Walsh.
The now 26-year-old Derek attacks his guitar like a rubber-fingered jazz master - part Ninja, part surgeon. So stealth, no wasted movements, hitting his notes and then bundling riffs so fluidly you forget how dynamic his attack on melody has become.
Songlines (Columbia/Legacy), his new album, is clearly his best studio effort to date, and it certainly adds more to his young legacy. Now, some may moan that it misses the dynamic tension of his live shows. Perhaps his desire to record real songs without the extended jamming contributed to this just-short-of-a-supernova effort, but then again Phish recorded numerous studio albums only to see those songs unfurl live. There is real growth in the songwriting department, but I'm guessing Mr. Trucks could cover a Hendrix song and make it his own. Opening with Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Volunteered Slavery" speaks volumes for his confidence and creative arranging skills. As he and his cohorts chant the melody line, Trucks slips and slides along right into his original composition "I'll Find My Way Home." Lead vocalist Mike Mattison's bluesy yowling is the perfect foil to Truck's ax. Song after song, they trade off on their resplendent instruments. The public domain tune "Crow Jane" had me dancing in my seat after one spin. And the tasty tidbit "Chevrolet," previously cooked up by Taj Mahal and The Black Crowes, gets a new coat of paint with congas and funky dobro.
Restoring my faith in the youth of America, Mr. Trucks has come of age. All hail the new guard. And catch him live.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!