Tedeschi Trucks Band / Grace Potter and the Nocturnals / JJ Grey and Mofro: Denver, June 15, 2013

Geoff Anderson By

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Tedeschi Trucks Band / Grace Potter and the Nocturnals / JJ Grey and Mofro
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Denver, CO
June 15, 2013

When you walk into the venue and the stage is set up with three Hammond B-3 organs, each with its own Leslie speaker, you know you're in for something earthy and gritty. And what better place for earthiness and grittiness than Red Rocks Amphitheater, carved out of rock formations that are between 300 million and 1.7 billion years old? Throw in perfect June weather and three bands that mix various amounts of blues, rock, soul, funk and jazz and it was an evening for the ages, or at least six hours.

JJ Grey and Mofro

JJ Grey had never been to Red Rocks before, and like pretty much every other first- timer, he was awe-struck and gushed over the scenery. He pulled himself together enough to put on an hour-long blues set with a six-piece backing band. He had drums, bass, keyboards (the B-3, ya know), guitar, trumpet and sax. Grey sang and played guitar on about half the tunes. He started with a new, somewhat topical song, "99 Shades of Crazy," referencing the popular, soft-core porn books aimed at suburban moms.

Grey came on stage with gray slacks and a navy polo shirt. Together with his short- cropped, thinning gray hair, he appeared fully qualified to man the counter at an auto parts store. But he's a blues man. He growled through a set of originals in front of his crack blues band with solos throughout the set by most members.

With three groups on the bill, all of a jammish persuasion, some crosspollination seemed inevitable. Sure enough, during "Ho Cake," a Grey classic going back to his first album, Kofi Burbridge of the Tedeschi Trucks Band joined Mofro on stage. Burbridge is normally the TTB's keyboard man, but he showed up with his flute, borrowing the trumpeter's mic and throwing down an impromptu solo.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Potter's studio output has grown increasing commercial over the past few years. Her latest album, The Lion, The Beast, The Beat (Hollywood Records, 2012), continues the trend. Many of the songs are constructed around sticky, sugary pop hooks. Her set Saturday night was, however, different. Is a comparison to Eric Clapton warranted?

Back in the 1970s, Clapton began spending a lot of time in the Caribbean. Possibly as a result of that, or possibly as a result of kicking heroin around that time, studio albums like 461 Ocean Boulevard (RSO, 1974) and There's One in Every Crowd (Polydor, 1975) began to take on a laidback, sometimes reggae-inflected flavor. Fans from his blues guitar hero days were frustrated and depressed. However, he continued his blues obsession in concert throughout the era, with EC Was Here (Polydor, 1975) a small document of this period. A better examination appears on Crossroads 2: Live in the Seventies (Polydor 1996), a four-CD set chronicling the heavy blues output during his concerts from that period.

Potter's set Saturday night was a somewhat similar contrast to her recent studio work. Her early material was shot through with the blues, subtle funk and more than a little jam band influence. At Red Rocks, the jam band influence rose to the forefront. That sound was evident right out of the box. The band rearranged "Stop the Bus," from This is Somewhere (Hollywood Records, 2007)—an older album for Potter— to include a rave-up jam in the middle, which was deftly designed to rev up the audience. "Some Kind of Ride" was from an even earlier album, Nothing But the Water (Ragged Company Records, 2006), back when denim and flannel weren't just her wardrobe, they were a lifestyle. "Never Go Back" was a track from her latest disc but, for the most part, that one eschewed the pop-hook formula.

"Devil's Train" is where things turned decidedly non-pop. On this one, the drummer strapped on a single drum and walked down front. All the rest of the band members donned acoustic guitars (even the bassist) and gave a workout to this old Roy Acuff classic. Listen for this one on the soundtrack to the movie The Lone Ranger: Wanted. Definitely not a slick pop tune.

While on the Devil theme, and to gain more jam band cred at the same time, the band then went into "Friend of the Devil." The deepest jam flavor came out toward the end of the show. The "Nothing But The Water Suite" is another tune from 2006. The first part of the studio version has Potter delivering a cappella, gospel-infused vocals, followed by a rock-n-roll rave for the second part. In performance, Potter was alone on the stage for part one, but this time she was wearing her Flying V guitar and, instead of a cappella vocals, accompanied herself with it. And not any old guitar licks. She played slide with a nasty, distorted sound. These licks could have come off a Chess Records side from the 1950s.

Still not finished with the Anti-Pop Potter, the next tune was a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." This one has been known to show up on the jam band scene, including renditions by Gov't Mule, which plays this one semi-regularly. Potter has been known to consort with the Mule and its leader, Warren Haynes, and may have picked up this one there.

Tedeschi Trucks Band

The Tedeschi Trucks Band has to be one of the top touring bands in the country right now. The amount of talent in this single band is unparalleled. Three years ago, the band started as an 11-piece ensemble and has been touring ever since, maintaining its original instrumentation despite the obvious challenge of a payroll that size.

As has been their practice throughout its three-year existence, the band played a combination of original tunes and covers. Keeping with its sound and musical influences, the covers were generally from the 1970s and earlier. The first tune, for example, was George Harrison's rarely heard "Wah Wah," but that is part of the fun of pulling out a song like this. The band also paid homage to its blues roots with Elmore James' "The Sky is Crying." Many of the original tunes will be on their next album, Made Up Mind (Sony Masterworks, 2013), due to be released later this summer.

A real highlight in the cover category was John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery." Bonnie Raitt had a hit with this one and hers may be the definitive version, but Saturday night's performance will give Raitt's a run for its money. This one came during the encore and featured Potter on vocals, trading back and forth and harmonizing with Tedeschi. These are two of the most powerful vocalists out there and to hear them tenderly work their way through the beautiful melody was a rare treat. As if that weren't enough, Tedeschi threw in a couple verses from the Grateful Dead's "Sugaree" for good measure.

An 11-piece band allows for a broad sonic diversity. Besides guitarist Derek Trucks and vocalist/guitarist Susan Tedeschi up front, the band included two drummers, keyboards, bass, two backing vocalists, and three horn players. While Trucks got plenty of solos, most everyone else got a chance to step up, too. Tedeschi played several guitar solos and sounded good—even next to her husband, who is widely regarded as one of the top blues-rock players on the scene, especially when he plays slide. All the horns got more than one solo slot, Burbridge playing several keyboard solos and getting his flute out again, while the vocalists came down front for lead roles and the drummers also had a brief spotlight.

The bassist warrants special mention. The original bassist in the band was Oteil Burbridge, brother of Kofi and the bassist for the Allman Brothers Band. Otiel has since left the band and TTB has had a few different bassists over the past few months, including George Porter, Jr., of the Meters. Saturday night's bassist was Eric Krasno, who's actually a guitarist by trade. He has two bands of his own—Soulive and Lettuce, both funk-rock-jam outfits. It's obvious what happens when you put a bass in the hands of an accomplished guitarist: no mere timekeeping, but rather continuous countermelodies and a steady intricate undercurrent. Toward the end of the set, the band brought on Todd Smallie, bassist for the superseded Derek Trucks Band. That allowed Krasno to get back behind a guitar and fire off some tasty solos. His turn out front on Clapton's "Any Day" was especially exciting.

Despite a six-hour, relentless onslaught by the three B-3s (as well as about a dozen guitars), the rocks standing guard over the amphitheater remained unmoved. The same could not be said about the audience.

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