At their inception in 2010, had the musical amalgam of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi added a third name to their band, it would have been Burbridge. Back then, Trucks and bassist Oteil Burbridge were still splitting time in the Allman Brothers Band. Oteil's brother, Kofi, was a veteran of the Derek Trucks Band, holding down stage right just over Trucks' shoulder, on keys and flute.
The Burbridges' inclusion secured Tedeschi Trucks Band's role as next-generation torchbearers of a psychedelic Southern soul tradition. Oteil left TTB in 2012 (joining Dead & Company a few years later), but Kofi's role only grew deeper — he's the inspiration behind signature riffs and intros that have become TTB classics — "Bound for Glory," "Midnight in Harlem," and "Still Your Mind," from the band's 2019 release, Signs.
For that album's release in February, the band scheduled a two-weekend run in Washington, D.C. — Kofi's hometown. But on February 15, album release day, Kofi passed away from health complications following a heart attack.
The band took the stage to play a few hours after his death, debuting an album that was already formed by grief and recovery — Signs was written following the 2017 passing of Butch Trucks, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Gregg Allman in quick succession.
"Everybody on stage was wounded," Trucks recalls, on the phone from his home in Jacksonville, before kicking off the summer's "Wheels of Soul" tour. "There are at least a few moments each night where we really tap in and acknowledge him musically. It's painful, and I don't think that'll ever go away in this band. Kofi's too big a part of us."
Trucks compares the on-stage feeling to what he experienced as a guitarist with the Allman Brothers. "There would be times — 40 years into that band when I was there — where I'd look over and I could tell Gregg was feeling the loss of his brother. That stuff doesn't go away ever in life. But music has a way of bringing it right out."
New brothers in the family
When Trucks thinks of Kofi now, he recalls the "resident genius" who could turn a good song into a great song.
"Kofi was the secret sauce," Trucks laughs. "Even if he was the baddest motherfucker in the room, he never made anyone feel inferior. He wasn't competitive that way. He was always rooting for musicians. Whenever people are really getting it, improvising in that place, he would always be the happiest person in the room."
During Kofi's illness, pianist Gabe Dixon filled in, a role he'll continue in this summer, including in Charleston. Trucks commends Dixon for his ability to "occupy the space in a different way but tip the hat when it's right."
"Kofi was a damn soldier. Even when he was in the ICU, he was thinking about, 'When can I get back on the gig?'" Trucks recalls. "Knowing him that way, it makes it really obvious what you're supposed to do. You don't have to think. There's no part of him that would want you to slow down. He was all heart."
Although Dixon has big shoes to fill, he's not the only new recruit on stage — Atlanta-based bassist Brandon Boone recently took over the low end from Tim Lefebvre after an amicable split. Boone, an alumnus of Col. Bruce Hampton's touring krewe, already had a deep connection with saxophonist Kebbi Williams, whose father helped introduce a young Kofi to the Atlanta music scene years ago.
In a band with two drummers, says Trucks, keeping the percussion happy is paramount, and Boone keeps J.J. Johnson and Tyler "Falcon" Greenwell smiling.
"Happy wife, happy life — happy drummers, happy band," quips Trucks.
Likewise, since Kofi's passing, Trucks says he's noticed a new depth to Kebbi's playing as he strives to fill the void.
"When the master goes, the apprentice has to step up," says Trucks. "You feel Kebbi trying to speak to him. When it happens, it's pretty profound."
As the band members adjust to their evolving roles, Trucks emphasizes how the natural lineage helps them grow as a family. "It's been really effortless the way they've stepped in, and it's lifted everybody else up when we probably needed it."
A growing family
TTB will add new family members this summer, as well. In previous summers, their annual Wheels of Soul tour has featured friends like the Wood Brothers, Sharon Jones, and Hot Tuna. For 2019, they've recruited Blackberry Smoke and Charleston's own Shovels & Rope, a husband/wife duo like Tedeschi Trucks.
Unlike previous summers, the bands don't enter as long-time friends. "This one is more by reputation," Trucks admits. "We're going on intuition. I feel like we'll probably find a lot of threads that tie us together."
Before kicking off in June, the three groups gathered in Jacksonville at Tedeschi's and Trucks' home, and they'll converge again on July 4, at the couple's farm near Macon, Ga.
"We're going to throw a big ol' party and see if we can get the tour buses in there without getting stuck in the mud. I'm 99.5 percent sure we're going to make it to Charleston," says Trucks.
That's a family gathering not unlike the parties Allman's guitarist Dickey Betts used to host at his Macon-area property. "But less guns, and probably less cops called," Trucks laughs.
Start to finish, Kofi's spiritual presence will be audible all summer.
"You get lost in the music sometimes and forget that he's not there for a second, and then you realize he isn't, and it takes a minute or two to refocus and get your shit back together," says Trucks. "But I keep coming back to the fact that I got to spend an incredible amount of time with a genius and a sweet man. I try to appreciate that. It's a gift."