The Allman Brothers Band (1)

“Ok. The Allman Brothers Band.” – Pretty much the entire intro to the classic Fillmore East album. 

Anybody who knows me has probably asked themselves, “Man, is he STILL listening to the Allman Brothers?” Well, in a word, yes. It’s difficult for me to put into words how important this band’s music is to me. Of all the hundreds of bands I’ve ever seen or listened to, I find no one to whom to compare the ABB. (There are many bands and performers whose music I’v loved. But for me there are four bands – Beatles, Stones, Springsteen/E Street, Allmans. And then everybody else).

As far as I’m concerned not only are the ABB in the top echelon of rock bands ever, they are the greatest band America ever produced. Why do I think these guys were so great? (“Were,” because they performed their final show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theater in New York. I was there on the previous Saturday, October 25th, my (I think) fifteenth and final time seeing them.)

Because prior to them, no one had fused together rock, blues, jazz and country in the way they did. And not only did they do that, they did it at the highest possible level of musicianship.

Formed in Jacksonville, FL in 1969, their first album was released that same year. Side One Track One, “Don’t Want You No More,” was a song by the Spencer Davis Group. It had lyrics but the Allmans chose to do it as an instrumental. It runs right into “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,”a Gregg Allman original. Listen to Duane’s gorgeous, perfect solo on the intro to the latter and then Gregg, one of the greatest blues singers ever, white or black, lay it down:

The Allmans were a fusion of a couple of different bands and styles. Duane and his brother Gregg had kicked around in a variety of bands that played not only blues but pop. Of one of their early pre-Allmans albums Duane said, “It’s cats tryin’ to get off on things that cannot be gotten off on.”

Duane also did session work, mostly at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama backing the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. (I think it was this R&B/soul background along with his great blues feel that differentiated him from his peers). The only other session musicians from that era I can recall breaking out are Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and country icon Glen Campbell.

Dickey Betts had been playing in a band called The Second Coming. While both he and Duane had legitimate blues and country backgrounds, Dickey always seemed to have the edge with pure country. One of his big influences was a band called Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Their genre is listed as Western Swing (and the Allmans do swing).

Dickey especially credits Wills for the idea of using harmonized guitar (and fiddle) which typically means one instrument plays the melody line and the other plays the same line a couple notes higher on the scale. It makes for a thicker, fuller and, well, more harmonious sound.

By late 1970, the Allmans had recorded and released two albums to some critical acclaim, little fanfare. As good as those albums were, this was an improvisational band that had to be seen live to really be appreciated. And so they toured relentlessly, up and down the East Coast and around the country.

Many of their initial concerts were held for free (imagine!) at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The guys eventually came to realize that they needed to record themselves live. And so what better place to do it than the Fillmore East, where owner Bill Graham (and the entire staff) had fallen in love with them and their sound. They played there so many times they were almost considered a house band and in fact, were one of the bands that played on closing night.

So in March of 1971, they recorded themselves there on three legendary nights. The subsequent release – “At Fillmore East”-  is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest live album of all time. It’s a perfect compendium of their sound at the time.

If you have eleven minutes to spare, you really should check out this video from the same venue the prior year. It is one of the few videos extant that features Duane. And it just so happens it’s the classic “Whipping Post.” (Frank Zappa got so tired of hearing audiences request it that he finally covered it. It’s here if you’re curious.)

Note – The Fillmore East album came out six months after the gig. Last time I saw the band I paid an extra 15 bucks and walked out the door 2 1/2 hours later with that night’s show on CD. Incredible.

Personal note – In 1971, I was going to a lot of concerts. My friends suggested we go see the ABB at Fillmore East (I was living in NY). I had no idea who they were but I figured, sure why not. But we instead decided to go see them in Central Park later that summer.

And so the good news is that yes I did see the original Allmans and yes they were great and yes my mind was blown. However, we blew the chance to see the legendary Fillmore East thing.  To which I can only say —

FUCK!!

Tasty tidbit – Bruce Springsteen and his cohort Steve Van Zandt were big ABB fans and managed to get themselves on the bill with them in Jersey. Compared to both bands’ later fame, relatively speaking, nobody had heard of either of them. (Springsteen didn’t have a record out for another two years). Duane supposedly showed Van Zandt how to play slide.

To my knowledge, no recording of this momentous shifting of the tectonic plates exists. But yes this is the exact same tour where I first saw the Allmans at the now-defunct Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. (Cowboy sucked). Now if only the ABB had let Bruce come to a meeting across the river in NY a few months later I could be telling you that I saw both of them on one bill. (See above reaction)

Allmans Springsteen

Gregg’s song of lonesomeness on the road, “Midnight Rider,” has been covered by everybody from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Garth Brooks. Here’s the original ABB cut (and here’s a nice cover by a country band called Little Big Town. Along with a special guest).

Next – Surviving Duane’s death and evolution of their sound. And stardom. 

6 thoughts on “The Allman Brothers Band (1)

  1. I have three Allman albums: Fillmore East (wowza, what a stunning album), Eat a Peach (some of their best moments, but a little hard to get through with the 33 min Mountain Jam bang in the middle), and Brothers and Sisters (Jessica holds a special place in my heart, however corny that may sound 😉

    That deluxe reissue of Idlewild South has been teasing me for a while btw…
    Anyway, I hope this link goes through okay: I watched the ‘Muscle Shoals’ documentary, and it had a little segment on the Allmans, and it tells a very interesting story about Duane and Taj Mahal, if you didn’t know it already 😀

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  2. Yeah, I saw the Muscle Shoals doc. That studio was Duane’s stomping ground. As to Taj Mahal, it’s funny but the ABB really just took his version of ‘Statesboro,’ did it and made it one of their signature songs. You can find some YouTube video of Taj playing with them at, I think, the Beacon. And you can still buy Coricidin slides. Bought one myself. Too damn big. 😀

    As to the Idlewild South re-release, I wasn’t aware of it till that blogger who has the isolated tracks mentioned it. As to Fillmore East, the ABB released a 6-CD album on their site a year or two ago. I think it’s pretty much everything they played there all three nights.

    Unfortunately since they knew they were going to record a live album – and audiences weren’t returning every night – they pretty much did the same songs over and over again. But it’s still interesting to hear alternate versions, sometimes Duane and Dickey playing lead at the same time. One thing that sucks is they had a horn section on one or two tunes. Sounded good on paper, didn’t work.

    “Jessica” and that whole Brothers and Sisters album is terrific. That’s when they peaked in this country as stars.

    I always had the feeling that the Allmans – relatively speaking – weren’t that popular in their heyday in England (outside of guitar magazines). Am I wrong? I know that in his autobiography Elvis Costello mentions everybody (even the Dead) except them.

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  3. Yeah, I can’t imagine them being wildly popular in England, even in the period 69-74 (their artistic high point, am I right?), apart from being lumped in with other American Southern rock/jam/blues bands. Interesting that Costello seems to love absolutely everyone from Igor Stravisnky to Black Flag, though apparently not the Allmans.

    Btw, what are your opinions on the Dead? I wouldn’t consider myself a Dead freak, but their album Live/Dead is one of my very favourites from that era, and I’m a massive fan of American Beauty, which I’m reccomending to everyone 😀

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  4. Yes, I would say that era was the Allmans high point. As to the Dead, fair question. And a complicated answer. I would say that I’ve never been anywhere near being a Deadhead. I couldn’t really get into their music very much and the whole “twirling” scene around them seemed silly. That said, I had a friend who was into them and he turned me on to both “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” Liked both of them but then never went much further with the band. LOVE “Ripple,” one of my favorite songs by them or any other band. Perfect marriage of music and mystical lyrics.

    But that aside, their jams just seemed to me to be pointless and meandering. Especially when compared to how intense and tight the Allmans were .(And yet, the bands played together more than once and certainly respected each other). It is fair now for me to see that I didn’t “get” the Dead. Their point wasn’t necessarily a level of intensity but just taking the jams wherever they wanted to go. And I think they were really coming more from a bluegrass/folky place than a blues place if you will. A commonality for both bands was that country blues area.

    But here’s the thing. When they did their final show in Chicago last year, it was broadcast on Sirius and I listened to a lot of it. Isn’t that funny? I was never really a fan and yet in some odd way, I felt some attachment to them just because they’d been around so damn long. (And they had that link to Sixties San Franciso). And so, while I am not a Deadhead, never went to see them, etc., I find I have some level of affection for them and they’re now on my Pandora shuffle. Strange, huh? Oh, and I will definitely do a post on them down the road. They deserve that much respect because for what they did, they did it well even if not always to my taste. And guys I respected like Trey Anastasio, John Meyer, Bruce Hornsby and Warren Haynes dug them. Like I said, complicated answer. 😉

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  5. Haha! There are some bands, I know, that one just can’t make one’s mind up about 😉 The Jams were meandering. Yes. I think the only explanation for why the Allmans’ Jams were so tight and groovy, and the Dead’s were so exploratory and meandering is d-r-u-g-s…. I know the Dead probably did way more lol.

    That being said, I do think that the Dead were consistent for a longer time, and that The Allmans’ were better but reached a peak that fell when Duane died (although Brothers and Sisters is great). I know lots of fans despise the whole Enlightened Rogues stuff, though I’m guessing that’s a post for another day for you 😉

    PS: If you do want to get into some Dead, check out Blues for Allah from 1975, which has some great, disciplined, tasty jams.

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  6. Yes, that’s the thing. For a long time I *had* made up mind. It’s like the old joke says:

    Q: What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off?
    A: This music sucks

    But as our politicians are wont to say, my feelings evolved over time. If not quite to the status of love, then at least to ‘like.’ I think also the jam difference was not just the bands’ relative chemical alteration (although that didn’t hurt) but also almost a philosophical idea of how the jams should go.

    Yes, more posts coming up. I will say this too about the ABB. They actually had a second peak long after Duane died. They re-formed in or around 1989 and did the album ‘Seven Turns’. I don’t recall if the whole album was great but when ‘Good Clean Fun’ blasted through the radio it was a return to form. This was the Dickey Betts/Warren Haynes incarnation. I saw a lot of their shows in the Nineties and they were great. Likewise when Derek Trucks joined. I think the band by then was well beyond being as influential as it once was and did not inspire the same kind of rabid following as the Dead. But they were really good right up till disbanding. But I’ll squeeze some of that into a further post .

    And I will definitely listen to ‘Allah’ before posting on the Dead. What’s that show they have? The Furthur Festival with ex-Dead guys? Who knows? Maybe I’ll show up there and start twirling. 😀

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